"it was affecting me physically a little bit."
A 16-year-old Australian student was groped by a passenger while other teenagers were left traumatised during an overnight train journey in India as part of the World Challenge program.
The unnamed girl from Healesville High School in Victoria had been travelling with 14 classmates and their teachers.
In what was described as “21 hours of chaos and trauma” they boarded an overnight train from Haridwar to Udaipur on December 8, 2019.
The event resulted in the girls huddling together for safety while teachers patrolled the carriages.
In a ticketing error, students were booked across separate carriages on the crowded train.
It was reported that rail officials were unhelpful in trying to change the pre-organised seat allocations. Teachers tried to swap with passengers but were met with hostility.
They managed to group students together but more problems arose when new passengers boarded the train and demanded their sleeper beds from the students.
According to the victim’s mother, Lisa O’Connor, her daughter needed to go to the toilet so she went with a friend for safety measures.
However, she was suddenly groped on the backside by a male passenger.
The shaken girl later pointed out the man to teachers. She said:
“I said, ‘That’s him right there’. A teacher and [the World Challenge team leader] walked up and stopped him and basically went off.”
The Australian student then decided to confront the man in order to defend herself and her classmates.
“I felt confident to do my own thing. I went up and said, ‘You’ve been staring at us. Don’t touch me and don’t touch the girls’.
“He didn’t know any English and he just stood there silently. My legs were shaking; it was affecting me physically a little bit.
“Just before we got off the train, my friend just burst into tears, saying, ‘I can’t believe that happened, I’m crying for everyone’.
“Girls were trying to sleep and men and women were grabbing them and shaking them trying to get them to move.”
“It was such an intense thing to go through.”
In an email, school principal Allan Rennick told the victim’s family that World Challenge “made a huge mess” of the experience and had “lost the confidence of all involved.”
The incident was referred to Indian police who said it would conduct its own review into how it was handled by World Challenge.
General Manager Mark Walters said the ticketing error was made by its on-the-ground agency in India and changes would be made so that students would always be grouped together in the future.
He went on to say that hundreds of students went to India as part of the expedition and that the incident was an isolated one.
Mr Walters told The Age: “We had a great ratio of staff there… better than one to five.
“Unfortunately, there’s a local man who has done something horrible.”
Ms O’Connor alleged that World Challenge organisers waited a week before contacting parents about the train journey.
She said her daughter, who had saved for 18 months to pay for the $7,500 trip, and the group were told not to call their parents in the following days so that World Challenge could be “briefed and debriefed.”
Several days later, an email was sent to Mr Rennick, which Ms O’Connor slammed for using the words “touched inappropriately” to describe her daughter’s ordeal.
She said: “This is sexual assault. They’re not acknowledging the severity.”
Mr Walters claimed that the wording was not intended to play down the seriousness of the journey. He said they were chosen to provide the “right context” for concerned parents.
The Australian student has decided not to formally complain to the police. She said:
“I just don’t think I can carry that torch and I’m glad Mum is doing that to stop them stuffing up again.”
“I’m 16, I don’t want to press charges, I just want to carry on with my life.”
The girl and her mother praised those who accompanied the students to India.