‘Why didn’t you just scream for help?’
I can still remember the police officer’s words as they tumbled from his mouth after I’d been sexually assaulted while at university.
Experiencing this sort of victim blaming from the people who were supposed to help me was devastating, but I held onto hope that my university would at least be able to give me support and take some action.
Instead, I discovered that things aren’t quite as cut and dry when it comes to reporting sexual assault at university.
Although 62% of students had experienced sexual violence at UK universities, according to research in 2018, only 1 in 10 actually reported their experience to the police or university. Of those, just 6% chose to inform their uni and out of those respondents, a meagre 2% were satisfied with the reporting process in place at their university.
Having gone through the ordeal of reporting a sexual assault at university myself, it’s not hard to understand why. It can often be isolating, scary and yield few, if any, results.
Even Covid-19 hasn’t halted the issue.
More than 100 posts appeared on an anonymous Instagram account over the summer detailing dozens of allegations of sexual assault and harassment at St. Andrews University.
And as many students across the UK are currently trapped in their halls due to lockdown restrictions or through the need to self isolate, they, along with university officials, have expressed concerns this could actually lead to a rise in sexual violence.
My own experience happened 15 months ago.
I wasn’t drunk, on a rowdy student night – not that it would have made it okay – I’d just fallen asleep watching TV. Then I woke to a sensation of hands roaming around my body.
Groping me in intimate areas, squeezing me, his lips brushing against my face.
I knew my attacker, but that is all I can say as he was never charged. I did report it to the police the following evening after crying on the train ride home, but as there was no penetration involved there was little they could do, they said.
All the same, I filled out the online forms to report misconduct on the websites for both my university and his.
Instantly, I was allocated a member of staff on my university’s Wellbeing team who helped me liaise with the conduct team from his university, as they would be the ones carrying out the investigation.
My uni, the University of Bristol, was great, but even the support they could offer was limited given the constraints and secrecy surrounding the ‘Report and Support’ system used by universities nationwide.
I found out that if I wanted to remain nameless the university couldn’t take any action even if I chose to name the attacker. It turned out that anonymous reports can only be used for statistical purposes,
Gemma McCall is CEO and Co-Founder of Culture Shift, a tech platform that works with universities across the country to offer more clarity into how anonymous reports are used.
She says that students who might not want to identify themselves personally should still make a report even if action can’t be taken in regard to their specific incident. ‘If there are a cluster of anonymous reports in a particular place, universities can still do something with that information,’ she explains.
Gemma adds that students may also feel assured when making a report if there was more consistent and persistent advertising of the reporting process and the avenues of support available, as their work has shown that many ‘start off making an anonymous report and then come forward and make a named report when they feel more comfortable.’
I spent the subsequent month after my assault not only desperately trying to focus on my coursework, but also making frantic phone calls to both universities to follow-up progress of the investigation.
These were weeks filled with nauseating anxiety and a lot of tears, while his university, the University of the West of England, allowed my attacker to remain on campus and continue his studies.
A year after the attack, there was finally a hearing for my case and I discovered that the perpetrator would be allowed the opportunity to ask me questions, effectively giving him the chance to interrogate me as he so wished so long as it wasn’t ‘inappropriate’.
Although I was aware that the disciplinary procedure at his university stated that the victim would undergo a ‘cross-examination’ from a panel of senior academics if the complaint reaches a Level 3 Hearing – which most reports rarely do – I couldn’t fathom why he was allowed his own shot at questioning me.
The double whammy was that it meant he was able to hear me recount the attack, while I wasn’t permitted to know what he said or ask him anything.
In the end he chose not to ask me questions, although I wasn’t told that until I was actually on the video call for the hearing, which he was still allowed to listen in to.
I also wasn’t permitted to speak at the hearing about the impact that the assault had on me emotionally, physically or financially. All of that was submitted in a separate written statement and I was told that the panel would only consider the impact an assault has on a victim after they’d decided on a verdict. It all felt so unfair and in his favour.
Finally, after pouring my heart out and reliving the trauma constantly in meetings and calls for his university’s investigation across an entire year, I was told I’d never find out the true outcome of my case.
UWE informed me that they concluded he had breached the Standards of Conduct expected by the university, but I couldn’t be privy to the exact details of what would happen to him next, which left me feeling even more lost.
It was as if the stress of reporting as well as the long investigation had been pointless and all for nothing if I couldn’t even receive the slightest bit of clarity.
This isn’t an unusual finding in cases like mine – in fact, it’s quite common at universities across the country.
Anna Bull, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Portsmouth co-founded the 1752 Group to help end sexual misconduct in higher education.
She says that cases are difficult to deal with because ‘different universities have different levels of expertise and support. There are often two separate processes; a student makes a complaint to the university and then the university takes a case against the student or member of staff complained about.’
According to Anna, unis often view cases like this as a matter between the perpetrator and the institution themselves, not the victim, while in some cases, the reporting student is told their complaint has been ‘upheld’, but they will not be told exactly what has been done.
‘Most universities won’t tell the complainant anything at all about what happens with the university’s case against the perpetrator,’ she explains. ’But people need a sense of justice, closure and safety. They need to know what steps and what disciplinary action was taken.’
In fact, 1752 Group research has highlighted that one of the main motives for reporting sexual misconduct is often because the victim wants to ensure the safety of other students. ‘They need to know if something has been done to prevent this from happening to others,’ says Anna.
Lisa (not her real name) was a student at Swansea University when she was assaulted by her flatmate at the same university, during her studies in 2015.
Grabbed by her throat and pinned down, she was forced to face her attacker’s crotch. When she reported it to the university’s Wellbeing Services Lisa was told that because she was staying in a private student rental, there would be no affiliation with the university and that they would not take it forward.
‘Afterwards, I opened up to other women around me as I went through university and it made me sick every time someone would say something similar happened to them,’ she remembers.
‘My biggest question is how are these criminals allowed to graduate? How can they shake hands on graduation knowing they had hurt so many women? It’s disgusting and abhorrent, but they slip through due to the lack of consequences in place by institutions and the law and will continue to do so.’
Another student at the University of Leicester, Hannah, was raped multiple times by her boyfriend, who also emotionally abused her, while they were at uni.
After finding the strength to report his actions to the university, he was banned from visiting venues such as the library and the Students’ Union building – and a ‘no-contact’ order was put in place for the beginning of the new academic year. Even so, Hannah regularly saw him on campus.
‘How was I meant to feel secure? My university failed to follow their own rules and failed to make me feel safe. They failed in protecting others from him.’
Hannah left university shortly after she reported him, leaving her accommodation and suspending her studies for the year to seek professional support while her abuser continued his studies and remained on campus.
After returning home, she began to report the abuse to her university and her case was heard before a disciplinary panel which she says she felt was handled appallingly.
‘All the evidence I provided was not used, such as CCTV footage from the Students’ Union Building,’ she explains.
‘The fact my grades went from a first to me failing was also ignored. I had three rounds of therapy and my doctor wrote letters to support my suspension of studies. I even had witness statements, screenshots of the threatening messages I received. Yet, this wasn’t deemed good enough.’
The investigation, which concluded earlier this year, led to her abuser simply being removed from the university sports team he played for as punishment.
All the other restrictions placed on him were lifted and he was able to continue as normal.
Meanwhile, no-one at the university had informed Hannah of this which led to a run-in with her abuser on campus.
‘The university’s failure to acknowledge the assault sends the message that the reputations of educational facilities and the rapists themselves are more important than a victim’s right to speak up,’ says Hannah.
‘There’s a higher punishment at university for copying and pasting than there is for rape.’
With no blanket structure for dealing with sexual misconduct in place for all institutions across the UK, currently it means that it is up to individual conduct teams to play judge and juror on what they deem severe enough.
This has often led to inappropriate and entirely inadequate disciplinary actions such as giving out meagre fines of less than £100.
In 2018, messages from a WhatsApp group chat full of male students at the University of Warwick were exposed online.
In them were streams of explicit texts about gang rape and genital mutilation, that even went so far as to name specific girls at the university.
Five of the men involved were banned from the university. Two for 10 years, while another two students for one year. Only one was given a lifetime campus ban.
The other six received minor disciplinary charges and had to pay £1,150 in total which was made up of individual fines of £250, £150 and £100.
However, the two students who received 10 year bans, had them reduced to just one year after appealing. The victims only found out about this outcome in the press.
Lawyer Ann Olivarius helped the victims take legal action against the uni and told The Tab at the time that small fines ‘diminish the seriousness of the violation.’ She added that they ‘amount to no more than a little slap on the wrist’.
Indeed, just a few weeks ago, a similar scandal hit the headlines. Screenshots from a number of group chats believed to be from incoming first year students at Durham University were exposed.
One chat named ‘Durham Boys Making all the Noise’ included talk of planning a competition to have sex with the ‘poorest girl’ on campus.
After the university launched an investigation, one male student had his place withdrawn over the ‘utterly abhorrent’ comments. However two others ‘were not found to have fallen short of the values we uphold’ and were allowed to begin studying at the university.
According to a Universities UK spokesperson: ‘A survey assessing progress two years on from the publication of UUK’s harassment taskforce on this matter [in 2016] found universities are taking innovative actions to address some of the issues, but that there is a long way to go in ending harassment for good in higher education.
‘All students and staff are entitled to a positive, safe and enjoyable experience at university, free from harassment; and all universities have a duty of care to provide that outcome. Every case of sexual violence is one too many and universities are committed to becoming safer places to live, work and study.’
Meanwhile, in 2018 research conducted by Revolt Sexual Assault in partnership with The Student Room, it was revealed that only 7% of students across the UK say they are familiar with their university’s sexual violence policy.
I certainly didn’t know the specifics of the reporting process until it was time for me to utilise it – and I definitely had no idea it would be a long-winded, fruitless endeavour with no real consequences or justice.
It shouldn’t take a scandal to force universities into doing more
Earlier this year a campaign called Loud and Clear was launched by students at Clare College, University of Cambridge, who had experienced sexual assault themselves or felt frustrated with the lack of support offered for victims.
As well as highlighting that none of their university’s information about how to report a sexual assault was easy to find, they also discovered that other universities like Warwick only made their misconduct policy more accessible to students after the group chat scandal.
‘But it shouldn’t take a scandal to force universities into doing more,’ says campaign group member, Marina McCready.
They also found issues with the hostile language the university used, referring to victims as people who ‘believe’ they have been harassed.
‘Everything seems to be quite slow,’ explains Antonia Harrison, another Loud and Clear member. ‘Between the university’s procedure and individual college procedures, there’s discrepancies. There doesn’t seem to be much communication.
‘Universities don’t seem to have a sense of how big of an issue it is,’ she adds. ‘The process indicates there’s a lot of members of staff you can go to if you experience misconduct, but none of them are trained in how to deal with students, especially without re-traumatising them and the vast majority of them are male.’
In order to improve, Loud and Clear suggest that academic institutions should not just ensure that the procedure is made as easy and clear as possible for the reporting student, but also combat the culture surrounding sexual violence by developing consent workshops – something that is already in progress in many universities.
Liaisng with Student Conduct, the campaign hopes to enact a university-wide reform of sexual misconduct and disciplinary procedures and create a culture of scrutiny and zero-tolerance.
However a 2019 study by researchers from Exeter and Durham indicated that while universities can be verbally supportive to its students, many simply don’t have sufficient resources such as money and staff time to be more committed in realising this support.
Their research also found that universities are often scared of the reputational risks of pursuing cases of sexual violence or fear that in pursuing it, other students would be ‘disproportionately worried’.
Anna Bull from the 1752 Group suggests that another way universities can be proactive is by partnering with local sexual violence organisations and employing specialist staff to support and advise students without traumatising them further.
For me, the assault I experienced while at university is something I continue to deal with today.
I still suffer with sleep paralysis and nightmares as a result and I continue to attend regular counselling.
My ability to make friends and trust people within the student community will forever be hindered due to the fear that they will do something to me.
In one evening, I was robbed of the chance to enjoy my next three years of university life.
I’ll never know if my attacker was ever reprimanded or punished in any way and, still, there is nothing really in place to stop this happening to another student.
Surely, there must be a better way?
What the universities said…
Metro.co.uk approached all the universities mentioned by our case studies for a right of reply.
A spokesperson from UWE Bristol said: ‘‘Sexual harassment and assault of any kind is not acceptable and will not be tolerated at UWE Bristol. We take all allegations of assault seriously and encourage people to report unacceptable behaviour to the university via our Report and Support service where they can choose to speak to one of our trained advisers or report issues anonymously.
It is important that any investigation that takes place is fair and thorough which does take time. We understand that the process can be distressing for all those involved so we keep everyone updated as much as possible, and ensure students and staff involved have wellbeing support available to them. We also undertake risk assessments at the start of every investigation to determine if additional measures are needed to protect the students involved, such as suspending a student from campus.
If a case goes to hearing, we do not allow direct questioning between the accused and the student who has reported the incident. Any questions posed by the accused to the reporting student would be asked by the panel overseeing the hearing. We also do everything we can to support the student reporting the incident if they chose to attend the hearing, such as ensuring they have someone with them, and keeping them separate from the other student. Once the panel has made their decision, impact statements are shared to help them determine appropriate sanctions.
In this particular case, we understand the frustration of the student concerned that they do not know the sanctions that were imposed on the accused student but this is due to data protection laws which prevent the university from sharing details of the final outcome with reporting students. While we have taken great care to create a fair and robust reporting system for people who experience assault or harassment we are always looking for ways to improve our procedure and support services. We would be happy to talk to the student concerned directly about her experience and recommendations on how we can improve our practice.’’
A spokesperson from Bristol University said: “Any student who shares their details will be contacted by one of our trained Sexual Violence Liaison Officers initially who will be able to provide information about reporting options and accessing appropriate specialist support.
If a student wishes to report an allegation about another University of Bristol student, they will get information about our disciplinary process from a Student Liaison Officer, whose role is keep the student informed throughout the stages of a Discipline Investigation.
We have done significant work over the last two years to enhance the support and advice available to students who have experienced sexual assault. This includes:
- Introducing new Discipline Regulations and a revised process for the investigation of these types of cases
- Introducing a team of specialist and externally trained Sexual Violence Liaison Officers
- Introducing the new role of Student Liaison Officers
- Introducing Report and Support, the online reporting tool
- Awareness raising with students, in partnership with the Students’ Union, about this issue and how to access support
This remains one of our key priorities of work moving forward.
This information is available online to signpost students to the support available.”
Kevin Child, Director of Student Services, Swansea University said: “While it is difficult to give a full response due to the few details made available to us, I can say that Swansea University takes complaints of this nature very seriously and have robust policies in place on how to deal with them.
What is true is our preventative work, policies, practices and have changed dramatically over the last five years following the UUK’s Changing The Culture report 2016.
We now have a network of Sexual Violence Liaison Officers who can provide immediate support to students who disclose sexual misconduct of any kind, specific training packages developed in house to raise awareness and support all staff across the university in dealing with disclosures and onward referral to specific support services.
We also have an online induction programme educating students in regard to healthy relationships, consent and disclosure pathways, very close working with external agencies e.g. Sexual Assault Referral Centres and other third sector organisations and clear processes for managing complaints through the University’s ordinances.
I can reassure our students that they can be confident that we will deal with their complaints sensitively, appropriately and confidentially and they should always come forward to us with any concerns they may have.”
A spokesperson for the University of Leicester said: “Whilst we cannot comment on individual cases, the University of Leicester has made it clear that any form of sexual harassment or violence is totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated here.
“Every allegation is taken extremely seriously and investigated, and students or staff affected will be supported and helped if they have experienced such behaviour.
“As part of our commitment to student and staff wellbeing and safety, we continuously review our regulations, policies and procedures to ensure that we are able to provide the best help and support possible, when it’s needed.
“We are committed to ensuring that the University builds upon this important work, and becomes a leading force for change in Higher Education in tackling sexual harassment and violence.
“We have robust reporting procedures in place. If any of our students have experienced sexual harassment on campus, we would ask that they immediately report this to University Security on 0116 252 2023 so that appropriate action can be taken, or contact Student Support Services for information, support and guidance on [email protected] Students and staff also can report an incident using the University’s Report and Support system, either anonymously or leave an email address to seek further support from Student Support.”
MORE : I was sexually assaulted by my best friend
MORE : Thought social distancing would end bar staff being sexually harassed? Think again
MORE : After escaping my controlling ex I worked with EastEnders on their domestic abuse storyline
Exploring the stories behind the headlines, In Focus is the brand new long read report series from Metro.co.uk.
Source: Read Full Article