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Incidents of Universities Mishandling Student Experiences of Sexual Assault

TW: Rape//Sexual Assault//Violence

In line with our recent report, titled ‘An analysis of UK universities’ sexual misconduct policies’, Reclaim The Campus have been researching media reports of universities’ responses to student sexual violence cases. The following examples indicate where universities have seemingly mishandled cases, by allowing the perpetrator to remain on campus or by purportedly dismissing the survivor. We are examining these examples because we felt they may be representative of wider student experiences of harassment and assault and we feel that it is important to highlight these incidents. We want universities to understand where they have gone wrong in the past and fulfil their duty of care towards their students or in providing a safe environment to learn and work. We also want students to understand that their own experiences are not isolated incidents and that they have the right to report to their institutions and be taken seriously. This is not an exhaustive list, nor is it a reflection of all universities and their procedures. It is, however, an extremely alarming indication of the amount of mishandled, and insensitively handled, cases of sexual misconduct by universities.

Initial research showed that the University of Cambridge has faced a number of accusations of mishandling sexual assault cases. In 2014, a female student at the university was sexually assaulted by a close friend at a party. She reported the incident initially to a female tutor after becoming depressed and struggling to eat and sleep. Although the tutor was sympathetic to her following her ordeal, the student stated that she was made to feel like she was to blame. After reporting it to 4 members of staff, all of whom dismissing the incident and refusing to take it further, she was told that the college could not investigate the attack as it was a ‘serious criminal offence’ requiring police action, despite advice from Rape Crisis and other groups stating otherwise. This meant that the student received no help and support from the university. In another incident in 2020, Dr Jeremy Morris, Master of Trinity Hall College, stepped back from his role after 600 students complained of how he, and other members of staff, dealt with sexual misconduct allegations. But was it really 600? A colleague of his, William O’Reilly, was also forced to step down (although the college maintains that O’Reilly was not dismissed and that his withdrawal was ‘voluntary’) following a series of complaints over his handling of the subsequent disciplinary procedures. Nearly 300 Cambridge students later signed a letter to the faculty in protest of their insufficient action dealing with the allegations made against O’Reilly. A total of 900 students felt that these university staff members detrimentally mishandled cases of sexual misconduct. We fear that this number is in fact much, much greater based on The Student Room Revolt Report which suggests that only 6% of those that have experienced sexual assault or harrassment at university report it.

Similarly, in 2015, a former Oxford student sued the university over the mishandling of her rape case. The assault occurred in 2011, with the student later reporting it in 2015 to the police and to Oxford University through the university’s complaints procedure. The police dropped the case and Oxford “failed to investigate the allegation properly or take any action against the alleged perpetrator”. In response, the student complained to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator of Higher Education. The issue was taken to high court in London in 2015 in an attempt to “overturn the university’s policy on investigating complaints of rape and sexual assault”. Sadly, the student lost the case, and the high court refused to give her permission to bring a judicial review challenge.

At University College London, talking to The Cheese Grater magazine in 2017, a first year medical student retold her story of how she was raped at the university. The student subsequently suffered with depression and suicidal thoughts as a result of the incident. She received ‘interim’ counselling provided by the university at the Student Psychological Services (SPS), but they could not offer her any long-term support, stating that they are “not trained or qualified to provide help to victims of sexual assault”. Attempting to seek help elsewhere, the student approached the Medicine Department’s Student Support, but also found their services ‘unhelpful and unfriendly’, and in return, a member of staff called her ‘“rude and unpleasant” in an official report’. Another student approached the same member of staff from that department after stating that she was concerned about seeing her attacker at Sports Night. The staff member’s advice was “just stop going out”. In the end, the student was told to take a year out of her studies to repeat the first year after failing her exams due to severe mental health issues. During this year out, she was offered no support or counselling by the university. Consequently, speaking to The Cheese Grater, the student said: “They push you around the system until you give up. There is no system to help”.

At the University of Warwick in 2019, a student was allowed to continue representing the university in Varsity days after he was charged with rape. After the charges were proven on 14 February 2019, the student received no punishment until a hearing on 4 March. As a result, the student was allowed to continue sports training, attend classes, and represent the university at a Varsity event. This came after the university stressed the need not to ‘prejudge’ the student before his disciplinary hearing on the 4th of March and that in an assessment, they found no “risk of him being on campus”.

Similarly, in Scotland, Professor Kevin O’Gorman was found guilty of sex attacks on 8 male students while working at Strathclyde and Heriot-Watt Universities between 2006 and 2014. In 2011, the University of Strathclyde carried out a probe into the accusations made against O'Gorman, following a complaint by a student's parents. Although dismissed from Strathclyde, O’Gorman was allowed to take up a new position at Heriot-Watt University, where he remained during the investigation. Aged just 17 at the time, one of the survivors complained of Strathclyde’s attempts to ‘whitewash’ (concealing incriminating evidence to protect a reputation) the investigation into the incident. He claimed that “The report downplayed the horrendous things O’Gorman did and used dismissive language”. It was also discovered that the report was delayed and then ‘published in secret’, failing to notify the survivors of its release. In response, Strathclyde told The Tab that "decisions on what actions to take are made on a case-by-case basis."

All in all, the various forms of action, and inaction indicate there is a growing dissatisfaction with how universities deal with allegations of sexual violence. We believe that students are losing faith in their institutions, which may threaten the ‘excellent’ reputations that universities wish to create for themselves. As our research shows, disciplinary processes often fail the students they are designed to protect, meaning perpetrators are allowed to continue their studies punishment-free at the universities, increasing the likelihood of victims encountering their attacker again. This is quite clearly unacceptable, and has shown it can lead to the worsening mental health of victims. But, by publicising these cases, we hope that media reports of allegations against universities may indicate to senior leadership teams that more needs to be done, incentivising them towards better policies and culture change.

If you have been affected by issues discussed in this post, you can seek help and support through the links below:

Rape Crisis:

UK Government Website:

Victim Support:

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