By Ryan Gould
Durham University Champagne Society has been placed on probation by Durham Students’ Union after “serious concerns” were raised about the safety and conduct of the Society’s 2016 summer ball, which took place at Hardwick Hall following the examination period in June.
The Students’ Union received correspondence in July from then Pro-Vice Chancellor (Colleges and Student Experience), Professor Graham Towl, and the Chair of Durham City Partnership, expressing concerns about the conduct of the ball.
In documents distributed to Palatinate as attendees of an open Students’ Union Assembly meeting last Thursday, the Students’ Union notes that its Chief Executive was asked by the University to investigate the events of the ball “on the basis of the potentially life-threatening combination of excessive alcohol and students entering the water at Hardwick Hall.”
The Society deemed this “an isolated event.”
“Whilst the Champagne Society Exec engaged positively with Students’ Union staff, the police, and Hardwick Hall in the run up to the event, it became clear that the risk assessment put in place had not been delivered on the night,” the Students’ Union stated.
The Champagne Society has told Palatinate that it disagrees with the claim that the risk assessment put in place for the night was not delivered.
The Society said that it had agreed with the venue that any glass would not be taken outside of the marquee area, that there would be a member of security staff patrolling the outside area including the lake, that the quantities of alcohol had been pre-approved by the police, and that St John’s Ambulance would be present on the night in the event of any unforeseen circumstances.
Background provided by the Students’ Union in the Assembly papers emphasises that it has “taken this matter extremely seriously and recognises the potential legal and reputational challenges presented.
“As a student-led organisation, the Students’ Union believes it is important for student leaders to debate this matter and decide what, if any, sanctions are to be taken against the Society.”
The documents outline how a number of police officers, many of whom “were not actually on duty and therefore attended without being paid,” attended Hardwick Hall on the evening on the Society’s ball due to the “number of incidents reported and because they had serious concerns about the safety of students in attendance.
“Initially a small number of [police] officers attended to monitor the event, however they had to call for back up due to the severity and volume of incidents.”
Questioning the “severity and volume” of the incidents, the Society told Palatinate that only one ambulance was called to the venue, by the St John’s Ambulance team, at 2:40am.
The Students’ Union has held “several constructive meetings” with the police, with its Policy Manager, Governance Director, and President having viewed police “bodycam footage” recorded on the evening of the ball.
Summarising what was apparently witnessed on the night, the document states that “a number of female students were unconscious due to being so intoxicated [sic],” with two students taken to hospital.
The Society stated that the cause for two students being taken to hospital is unclear.
“The St John’s Ambulance volunteers in attendance were ill-prepared for the levels of intoxication and struggled to respond to the more serious incidents,” the document reads.
“In one piece of footage two volunteers are seen carrying an unconscious student up a flight of stairs in a blanket.”
“The police reported that the volunteers did not know what to do whence faced with students losing consciousness and simply called 999.”
The Society reiterated that “only one ambulance was called by St John’s. The fact that they were not able to deal with the incidents is not our fault due to the fact that we implemented our risk assessment by having them present.”
Among other concerns, the document questions the amount of alcohol that was consumed by some members of the Executive Committee.
“The video footage taken by the police officers can under no circumstances prove that members of the Exec were under the influence of alcohol. There were no breathalyser recordings taken. We strongly refute this.”
It is also alleged that “in another piece of footage, police officers are expressing deep concern for students in the pond [at Hardwick Hall]. On a number of occasions, officers can be heard ordering the students to get out of the water.”
Some of the students who entered the water were reportedly naked.
Separately, a letter sent to Professor Towl by the Chair of the Durham City Partnership, established following the river deaths of three Durham University students in 2014/15, claims that “students vomited on police officers and others due to excessive drinking.”
The same letter also states that the police “informed the Partnership that Hardwick Hall do not appear to be taking the concerns they have raised with the venue seriously. The police have serious concerns about the way in which the event was managed by the Hall.”
The Students’ Union has emphasised that the new Executive Committee of the Champagne Society has cooperated and engaged since the June ball, with a meeting held between the Students’ Union and the Society in early October.
“The new Executive [sic] seemed conciliatory and aware of the failings of the summer ball. They understood the severity of what happened in terms of the safety of students and accepted that the failure to properly implement the risk mitigations was the responsibility of the Champagne Society and specifically, the Exec,” the Students’ Union states in the papers.
In response, the Champagne Society said: “For many of the students whom attended, this ball was the highlight of their Durham experience.
“The Champagne Society has a history of throwing fantastic balls, which is something we wish to continue.”
The Society also questions “whether the failure to implement the risk assessment was all of [their] responsibility.”
The Students’ Union highlights that the Society were “honest about the fact that there were excessive amounts of champagne available on the night” due to the fact that “magnums of champagne—as opposed to bottles—were delivered in error.”
A magnum of champagne, containing 1.5 litres, is equal to two standard bottles.
In addition to the champagne provided, the Society said that the venue “neglected their responsibility to stop serving students whom had clearly already had too much to drink. This was something that we had briefed [the venue] on.”
Responding to the allegations raised by the police and the Durham City Partnership, the Society has stated they are “fully committed to working in close alliance with both the police and Durham Students’ Union in order to create events which are fundamentally safe for the student body.
“We are determined to tackle the causes of the issues which have been raised and are fully committed in preventing these from happening in the future.”
Assembly members voted in favour of “education and probation” for the Champagne Society at the meeting, with the other options being a formal written warning, suspension, or de-ratification of the Society as a whole.
“Champagne Society will be put on probation until Epiphany term,” the papers state. “To avoid further sanctions, the Society will have to demonstrate improvements in the implementation of risk assessments and their commitment to student safety.”
As part of this measure, the Society will be required to engage in training on events planning and management, liaise with the Students’ Union and police regarding future events, and work with the Students’ Union “to develop an action plan for the year ahead—including plans for future events and improvements that are going to be made.”
Alice Dee, President of Durham Students’ Union, told Palatinate that “the concerns expressed from the police and other organisations are sufficiently threatening to student safety that the Students’ Union has to act.
“Fundamentally, being student-led is at the heart of everything we do, which is why myself and the Officer team felt that the Champagne Society Exec should be given the opportunity to address the concerns raised, but also that Assembly should shape the SU response,” Dee said.
“It’s important that student groups retain the right to use the name ‘Durham University’ in their title, and it’s not fair for the actions of one group to affect our other student organisations.
“I’m looking forward to working with the Exec and reviewing the lessons which will hopefully be learnt following their Winter Ball.”
In the Assembly papers, the Society states: “Fundamentally, the ball that we threw on the 5th June was the largest ball that has ever been thrown by any Durham University Society in recent times.
“Due to the sheer nature and size of the event, the amount of problems which occurred were always going to be greater than that of other events.”
In a separate statement to Palatinate, Durham University Champagne Society said that it “welcomes the decision of the Durham Students’ Union.
“We look forward to working with them and other supportive bodies in the future, to help ensure that our balls are run safely and enjoyably.”
Photograph: Durham Students’ Union