Sexual assault: the past, present and future of policy at our university

Content warning: sexual assault

Most students hear some variation of warnings from their parents before leaving for university: “be careful,” “don’t go out alone at night,” “make sure you always have a friend with you.” The horror stories have become all too common. A fresher goes to a party full of fourth years or walks home alone, late at night. The risk of sexual assault at universities has become an accepted part of the student experience. 

In British universities, 60 per cent of students experience sexual assault or harassment. Despite this pervasiveness, only six per cent of those will report their experience to their university. 

According to the university, there were 50 total reports of sexual assault or harassment on campus, which implies that there are over 800 more students that have been assaulted. However, of that 800, only 15 students who were reported actually received internal disciplinary measures. Why, then, do so few students report their experiences to the university?

Most point to the often complicated and nebulous process that students must go through when reporting instances of sexual harassment. Movies and television often emphasise a narrative of a broken system, which silences students through its complex and daunting structure. Documentaries such as The Hunting Ground report on the conflict of interest that universities experience when facing a case of sexual assault, wanting to find justice while preserving its own perception as a safe place.

A survey conducted by Revolt Sexual Assault and The Student Room found that only two per cent of students who reported their experience of sexual assault or harassment to their university was satisfied with the process. 

While the reporting and the investigation certainly are one area that needs improvement, an equally important, and much more ingrained, factor is rape culture. Rape culture, pervading all of society, shames and silences victims of sexual violence. 

Action in both these spheres is necessary to create lasting, positive change. 

Charlie (whose name has been changed to protect their identity), now a fourth year at the College of Arts Humanities and Social Sciences, was assaulted by another student during their second year. Both Charlie and the perpetrator were members of the same society. Charlie, alongside a few of their friends, came forward and alleged being assaulted by this student at various times throughout the year. They described feeling unsupported and isolated when trying to report their assault.

When Charlie was trying to figure out the next steps, they did not know what to do. Without an office to visit, or any resources to call upon, they searched for answers online, finding the university’s guidelines to reporting sexual assault.

The guidelines directed Charlie to the Advice Place, the Edinburgh University Students’ Association service which provides support and advice to all students on a variety of issues. On their website, the Advice Place website lists topics ranging from academics and accommodation to complaints of misconduct, harassment, safety and crime. It serves as a ‘one stop shop’ for students in need of support and provides the most direct connection from the student to the university administration.

As directed by the Advice Place website, Charlie came into the office to seek support and advice on how to proceed. However, they found the Advice Place unreceptive and unhelpful. 

“We [Charlie and the other complainants] talked about our case and the kind of support they could offer us. As one of the accusers was in their fourth year, one of the men said to them – and I’m not kidding – ‘Are you sure you want to go through with this? Don’t you have better things to do, like your dissertation?’ That kind of sums up our experience with university support. We were consistently gaslighted, offered little support and we were made to feel punished for bringing our allegations forward – are we sure we wanted to ruin this guy’s life when he was doing engineering and would be graduating soon anyway?” 

Despite the Advice Place’s unhelpfulness, Charlie pushed forward and lodged an official university complaint against their assaulter, following the Code of Student Conduct. They noted that the form that they had to fill out was a general complaint form used for a wide range of issues, from complaints about professors to allegations of rape. 

“The questions were occasionally irrelevant, [for example,] ‘What do you think the university can do to resolve your issue?’” Charlie said. “It felt reductive to write about it [the assault] into a tiny box that is normally filled with answers like ‘review my essay/exam mark.’ It felt ridiculous that the university’s complaints procedure worked that way. If there was a specific sexual assault tailored complaints system, we never knew it existed and were never pointed in that direction by anyone we were in contact with throughout the investigation.”

Following the official report to the university, Charlie’s case was taken to a conduct investigator, an administrator who is charged with investigating cases of breach of the Student Code of Conduct. Investigators proceed to interview the complainant, plaintiffs, and various witnesses, all of which takes an indeterminate amount of time. Furthermore, these investigators are not responsible for keeping those involved in the case up-to-date regarding its progress.

“It took the university absolutely ages – we’re talking months and months – to proceed with the investigation. We had no idea what was going on with the investigation and would randomly receive emails telling us that we had to meet to talk about something [or] be interviewed with very little idea as to what we’d be talking about. Experiencing that constant lack of information over such a long time was hugely anxiety-inducing.”

Some of the conduct investigators work as admissions officers, others work within the professional services department of their respective schools. However, all investigators are typically untrained prior to appointment and have little experience in the field. Further, they are not additionally compensated for their job; they volunteer to become investigators in addition to the roles that they fulfil within the university.

During the investigation itself, Charlie felt completely in-the-dark as to what was going on. There were many large gaps of communication during which they were completely unaware of the university’s proceedings. Charlie felt the university remained silent unless reaching out to them for further testimony. They also did not know when they were going to see the defendant, whether that would be in class, during a meeting, or even on the streets. 

“I remember seeing him once on the other side of the road when I was walking somewhere on my own. I hid behind a massive bin, had a panic attack and was sick. I know the experience was similar for the other accusers.”

Charlie met with the investigators multiple times to discuss their case, with little notice of when said meetings were to occur. They received no information regarding the content of the meetings other than a time and place. Typically, meetings were composed of five or six university administrators, ranging from investigators and scribes to members of the university’s Student Experience panel, who all sat on one side of a table while Charlie gave their testimony or responded to questioning from the other side.

“Though you could read that as a sign that the university cared enough to get lots of people into the room, it was also hugely intimidating. On a practical level, it felt like an ‘us vs. them’ situation. I was really emotional whilst giving my account and know that the other accusers were too. It was made all the more difficult by there being 5 or 6 strangers listening to our accounts. I remember one of the people on the board reading responding to text messages throughout, barely listening.”

Following the completion of their investigation, investigators bring their findings to the Disciplinary Committee of the university, who will decide whether punishment or further actions are necessary based on the report. 

The university ultimately did not take action over Charlie’s sexual assault claims, justifying their decision, according to Charlie, due to lack of evidence. However, it did deem there to be sufficient evidence to convict the defendant of harassment. They were informed of this decision via email, though the email did not disclose what the disciplinary warning entailed. 

Charlie was particularly perturbed by this decision due to the potential ramifications of the defendant going unpunished. They specifically noted that one justification the university cited for their inaction was the defendant’s personal testimony regarding his emotional difficulties during this period and his problems with alcohol dependency. One of the emails that Charlie had submitted to the university showed the defendant admitting to “bad behavior” and claiming that they had “learnt from [their] mistakes.” However, Charlie points out that by excusing the assault due to personal problems, the university essentially admits misconduct occurred.

“If the university concedes that he did do what he did, because, as they suggested, he had an alcohol and emotional problem, then he clearly still poses a threat to the student body and should be removed. Claiming that you should remain a part of the student body because you want to tackle your issues is not a reason to not expel someone, because you are directly putting other people at risk.”

Though the university issued some form of disciplinary action, it was not severe enough for Charlie and their friends. They felt that by allowing the defendant to continue a regular university experience, the university put other students at risk. Only a few months after the case, Charlie and their friends were forced to take action when they discovered the defendant had posted on Facebook looking for new flatmates in Edinburgh. 

“We then took it upon ourselves to message everyone who liked or commented on his post to let them know that he had been convicted of harassment, had gone through a case that also included several accusations of sexual assault and had also acted badly towards numerous others who weren’t able to come forward for personal reasons. It seemed unbelievable that we were the ones who were attempting to help others stay clear of this guy.” 

This harrowing testimony is only one example of the procedure that students who want to report their sexual assault go through. However, administrators within the university recognise the inherently flawed process and have begun to construct new systems to support victims. 

Deputy Secretary Gavin Douglas and Director of Student Wellbeing Andy Shanks have tackled the issue in a two-fold approach. The first part includes rectifying the process of reporting and clarifying and elucidating the process for students. 

Both administrators supported proposals that would increase funding for hiring  Sexual Violence Liaison Officers (SVLOs). These officers would bridge the gap between the university and the student. Instead of going to the Advice Place first, students would report to SVLOs to report any cases of sexual assault. These liaisons would then get reports from the conduct investigators and report back to the students, both the accused and the complainant, keeping them in the loop the entire time. 

The Students’ Association and VP Welfare Kai O’Doherty drove the creation of SVLOs. O’Doherty submitted a proposal suggesting the creation of SVLOs and outlined five main problems within the process to the university: 1) the complaint form not being specific to sexual assault and harassment; 2) the investigation process itself, which uses investigators that do not have appropriate training and can, therefore, seem deceptively supportive, without the ability to enact change, or being overly interrogative, treating the survivor as a witness; 3) poor communications by the university; 4) lack of support and inability to access support; and 5) the negative and stressful impact of the investigation on students. 

Though O’Doherty, Shanks and Douglas’s changes have been proposed in this year’s Planning Round, no funding has been guaranteed as of yet. Conduct investigators have yet to be professionalized, funding for SVLOs has not been guaranteed and the reporting process remains unchanged. The new budget will be released by the end of June.

For now, the still ineffective system drives students to seek systems of support elsewhere, whether that be from personal tutors or from within their own societies. 

Personal Tutor and Law School Teaching Fellow Gemma Flynn said she had five separate students who came to her last semester, disclosing accounts of sexual violence or harassment, some of whom were not her own tutees. However, they had felt more comfortable talking to a female professor who studied the topic of gender-based misconduct and criminology than a male personal tutor with little experience in the department.

“I’m not very well trained so I was just trying my best to listen, but it certainly struck me that it was a problem that the students were reaching out to me because of a lack of understanding maybe from their male tutors,” Flynn said. “That’s a huge problem in the university more generally, that students don’t often know what’s available to them in terms of support.”

Training on how to deal with allegations of sexual assault is currently not mandatory for faculty members, though they do have to report it to the university when students come to them with allegations. Only “several hundred” professors have completed such training according to Deputy Secretary Gavin Douglas. Within the colleges of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Medicine & Veterinary Medicine, and Science & Engineering alone, there are 7,238 full time staff members. 

According to Flynn, the majority of the students she spoke to did not file an official complaint to the university. In her view, the reason behind this was fear of repercussions, both on their own university experience as well as on the experience of their assaulters. Flynn specifically cited the close-knit nature of the law school and culture of the law community as a deterrent to law students specifically coming forward. Fear of ruining the careers of both the accused and the victim themselves are present, since the small and informal network of the law school is essential in progressing careers.

“Even these informal processes, they still stigmatise and ruin careers. […] It’s the double whammy of the perceived ineffectiveness of the [university processes] and the possibility that you’re going to be further traumatised by it, which keeps a lot of young [people] feeling like they can’t seek justice,” Flynn said.  

Similarly, Charlie went to their society’s president in order to find some form of justice. However, the president had no training and, therefore, had no idea how to respond. 

“The society were at a loss what to do. We messaged the president, and she suggested we, the accusers, sit down with the assaulter for a coffee and talk it all through so we could all make up. It seriously wasn’t her fault that it was such a poor response, because, as she later admitted, she had no idea what to do or how to react. She was even unsure as to what [the Students’ Association] could do about this – [they] assaulted, attempted to assault and harassed lots of girls and guys in the society – so none of us knew what to do.” 

The underlying problem, then, seems to be education. Administrators, faculty, and students alike are unable to properly understand and discuss the problem of sexual assault which leads to miseducation.

While the university is taking steps to rectify the reporting process, the problem often starts before students even step on campus. The culture of silence and shame surrounding sex is to the detriment of victims of sexual abuse. Whether it be fear of being slut-shamed or of not being believed, victims feel that they can’t speak about their assault. The low number of students coming forward after an assault to both the university and the police implies survivors feel unable to speak up or are unclear if their experience is classified as sexual harassment. Additionally, some survivors simply want to move on and not bring further attention to these situation. 

The university is working hard at tackling this second arm of the problem. Douglas has organised programming with the Consent Collective, “a not-for-profit organisation that helps people understand and talk about sexual harassment, consent, relationships, gender, sexual violence and domestic abuse.” The organisation also brought consent education workshops to the student body and faculty in a week long event, hosting educational game shows, survivor workshops, and other events. 

Nina Burrowes, founder of the organisation, emphasised the importance of not just focusing on rectifying the reporting process, but also creating an environment and culture in which victims feel supported and believed. 

“A lot of universities are focusing on their reporting systems at the moment. And they should be because they’re mostly not adequate and the investigations systems are often not adequate at universities. But the conversation we really need to be having is a prevention one. Success isn’t having a shiny reporting system; success is, ‘it didn’t happen in the first place.’ So universities need to be feeling the pressure of it being incumbent upon them to be proactively addressing the culture within the university so that this becomes a place where it’s not likely to happen,” Burrowes said.

Similarly, the Students’ Association has attempted to change the culture by raising awareness and hopes to ultimately end sexual harassment with the #NoExcuse campaign, posting flyers and adverts around campus. The university aided in funding the campaign, allowing for the Students’ Association to consult with a professional graphic designer and to spread the campaign.

The university indicated further commitment to creating a more healthy sexual culture on campus with the creation of the Sexual Violence Task Force last August. The aim of the task force is to explore solutions and unite all groups within the university to deal with sexual violence on campus, creating long term change. An amalgamation of students, faculty members and administrators from all corners of the university, the task force created both short-term markers and long-term goals for the university in order to improve sexual health and sex positivity for students and faculty.

“The university has been working to try to handle this type of misconduct for a long time, but there has been much more of a spotlight on this behavior,” head of the Sexual Violence Task Force Leigh Chalmers said. “[The task force] gave us an opportunity to see, ‘we’ve done all this stuff, this is all the stuff that we’re looking to do in the next 12 months, and there are things we should prioritise’. It enabled us to stop and consolidate.”

Douglas is also working on increasing consent training and bystander training during Welcome Week. During the 2018-2019 school year, the university trained 300 to 400 Welcome Week volunteers in bystander intervention training. Douglas plans to focus initially on student leaders, such as Welcome Week volunteers, Resident Assistants, presidents of societies, and office bearers of the Sports Union. With 10,000 new students every year, Douglas hopes to pilot a peer-led version of the program which will educate every student residing in campus housing.

“It’s pretty easy for us to buy a piece of software about consent training for students, put it on a website and say, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ve all got to do this.’ I am deeply sceptical that that is a very efficient way of actually having that discussion. So we’re trying to find more meaningful ways of engaging students in that discussion,” Douglas said.

“We have certainly been able to date to secure funding for all the activities – campaigns, training for students, training for staff, et cetera – that we have so far wanted to put in place to tackle sexual violence on campus, so no problems there. As we seek to step up the range of support and activities on offer we will need to invest further in this area, and we are currently bidding for more resources to do this,” Douglas said. However, neither he nor Shanks was certain that they would secure the funding. 

All these recent actions beg the question, why now? What has spurred administrators and the university to pursue action on this issue now?

“I think the #MeToo campaign and all the stuff from the Scottish government and the UK government and in sport and film has helped people realise and develop the language to talk about this sort of stuff,” Shanks said. “I think there was an anxiety maybe previously about talking about this stuff. […] I think people are much more comfortable now that they’re talking about the fact that it is in an issue for us in universities as it is for the whole of society.”

Publications such as the Equally Safe in Higher Education Toolkit, a guide published in 2018 by University of Strathclyde to prevent gender-based misconduct within universities, and the 2015 National Union of Students survey regarding sexual health were cited by Douglas and Shanks as studies which contributed to the rising tide of concern regarding sexual health on campus.

Such studies contributed to the university’s decision to partner with other external organisations as a way to approach the wider goal of reducing sexual violence in Edinburgh itself. One outside organisation the university has partnered in is Fearless Edinburgh. A citywide initiative to reduce sexual assault, wherein Edinburgh universities, Police Scotland, the National Health Service, Rape Crisis Scotland, as well as other organisations aim to prevent and end gender-based misconduct through an intersectional approach.

While the university has taken many proactive steps to change campus culture and prevent assault, it has yet to create concrete changes to the reporting and investigation process. However, as the university moves forward and aims to create a safer and healthier campus culture surrounding sexual health, O’Doherty remains “cautiously optimistic.” While they feel a lot of progress has happened around proactive education work, the more tangible changes regarding the reporting process have yet to occur. 

“Yes, we’re on the same page. Yes, I’m grateful that the people I work within the university agreed to a lot of this. But the proof is in the pudding and the practical things have not happened yet. So that’s where I will remain cautiously optimistic,” O’Doherty said.

 

Additional reporting by Caitlin Powell

Image: Andrew Perry

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The Student Newspaper 2016