Students “helpless” in negotiating “overly complex” University complaints procedure

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Students who have complained about sexual assault and domestic abuse at Durham University have reported to Palatinate feeling “helpless” in trying to negotiate the University’s complaints procedure.

They have been left “disappointed” with the outcome and with the sense that they “shouldn’t bother trying to report anything else because… it’s not worth bringing back all that trauma for.” The complaints procedure itself entails the completion of an online form, in which students are asked to describe their experiences of assault and/or abuse.

Complainants are also asked what action they would like the University to take against the individual they are complaining
about. Students suggested that the question about the punishment for the individual they were complaining about made them
lose confidence in the system. One commented “all I wanted was a sense of fairness and justice. I had assumed that the University would have a procedure for giving the appropriate punishment.”

“Universities have focused on sexual violence and forgotten or sidelined domestic violence by adhering to stereotypes about who experiences domestic violence and abuse and who is even in a serious relationship.”

-Professor Nicole Westmarland

One student also described how their request for action against the accused individual was not acted upon, and as a result, they felt a sense of injustice and lack of agency in the complaints process. Another told Palatinate that this question had taken them a week to answer.

Having submitted the complaint form, students described the ensuing investigation process as “traumatic.” According to complainants, one of the main issues related to the extensive time frame taken to complete disciplinary procedures. One student reported that, having first submitted their complaint in September 2020, it was not investigated until January, and not resolved until March, 2021.

As a result, this left them “in limbo” for over six months. Once investigations begin, cases are investigated by specialists from the University. A number of students spoke positively of their investigators, and all agreed that it was good that two were assigned rather than one. However, others described how they felt “judged” by their investigators on the basis of how much they may have drunk or the possibility that complainants were “encouraging” the abuse.

Jeremy Cook, Pro-ViceChancellor (Colleges and Student Experience) at Durham University, said: “Durham University is a safe place to live, work and study, and we are working tirelessly, including with our students and student leaders, to make it even more so.

“There is no place here for individuals who are found to have committed acts of sexual misconduct or violence. When students disclose or report instances of sexual misconduct or violence to us, we are committed to providing comprehensive support, investigating promptly and taking decisive action.

“Our approach has seen an increase in cases reported to us, but we see this as our community growing in confidence that we will act appropriately in response to such reports. We are deeply saddened to hear the experiences of the students interviewed by Palatinate and would welcome the opportunity to understand their concerns more fully, so that we can enhance our procedures and service in future.”

When asked what measures the University puts in place to protect victims of sexual assault during complaint investigations, a spokesperson responded: “The University recognises the many barriers that victimsurvivors face in disclosing sexual misconduct and violence and that all processes from disclosure through to discipline need to be conducted in ways that do not retraumatise victim-survivors.

“We start by allowing victims to have autonomy in choosing to make a report to the University and/or Police. If a report is made, the University protects victim-survivors during investigations in the following ways:

“Through student support: Staff receive training on how to respond to disclosures of sexual misconduct and violence and support students during investigations.” the spokesperson continued. “Reporting Parties are assigned a member of staff in their College who is available to offer them support during the investigation process.

“Reporting Parties also have the option to engage with specialist counselling delivered at the University by the Rape & Sexual Abuse Counselling Centre. For the Reporting Parties who wish to make a report to the Police, they also have access to an Independent Sexual Violence Advisor through the North East SARC Support Service.

“Through precautionary measures: The University conducts a risk assessment when a report is made to the University or to the Police regarding an incident of sexual misconduct and violence. Based on the risk assessment, the University will put in place precautionary measures to mitigate any risk of future harm to the Reporting Party or other community members.

“Precautionary measures may include a No Contact Arrangement, partial suspension or full suspension from the University whilst university or criminal investigations are underway. Responding Parties are informed they cannot make any direct or indirect contact with the Reporting Party and told that retaliation is not tolerated at the University.

“Through trauma-informed investigations: The University only uses investigators who have been trained in traumainformed investigating for sexual misconduct, specifically. In previous years, the investigations have been conducted by trained volunteer investigators from the University. Specifically we now have appointed two fulltime professional investigators who conduct trauma-informed investigations too. These investigations are now completed within 90 days of a report being received by the University in most cases.”

It was reported that students were also not clearly signposted how to complain, and that breaching the issue first with JCR Welfare Officers could risk creating a “court of public opinion”, particularly with allegations against active JCR members.

Once the investigation is concluded, a report is sent to the complainant which includes the accounts of both themselves and
the alleged perpetrator. Alongside these are the investigator’s assessment of their veracity. In the case of alleged abuse, a student told Palatinate that having to read the account of their abuser “blurred their sense of reality” when their abuser had suggested that they were “obsessed with [them]”.

This led them to wonder if they were overreacting, and, they reflected, “played into the whole culture of victim-blaming in Durham.” This made them feel that the complaints process was not sufficiently geared towards protecting victims. Despite the outcome of one disciplinary process concluding that an individual was guilty of harassment, they retained their JCR position and were able to continue being part of the college parenting scheme.

Excluding expulsion, when asked what measures are in place to ensure that the outcomes of University complaints procedures
guarantee a safe environment for victims in their colleges, a spokesperson responded:

“The Sexual Misconduct and Violence Policy covers a range of different forms of sexual misconduct. If, based on a balance of probabilities, it is found that a Responding Party has breached the Sexual Misconduct and Violence Policy, a number of factors are considered to determine the appropriate and proportionate sanction to remedy the harm caused and/ or to prevent future harm from occurring.

“These factors include what the Reporting Party has requested in their report and any further impact statement they may have submitted during a disciplinary process. The University also considers if the breach is a Category 1 or Category 2 offence and any mitigating and/or aggravating factors that may be relevant. A range of sanctions can be used, including, but not limited to, a No Contact Order, change of College membership, bans from specific parts of the University, a one-year exclusion from the University, or permanent expulsion.

“If, based on a balance of probabilities, it is not found that the Responding Party breached the policy, then often a No Contact
Arrangement can be offered to both parties and the option of moving College membership can be discussed with any one party who may wish to move.

“Finally, the University believes that part of ensuring a safe environment for Reporting Parties includes sharing the outcome of an investigation and discipline process, including sanctions where relevant, with both the Reporting and Responding Parties. Knowing the outcome of the investigation and discipline process can help Reporting Parties feel safer at the University.”

Complaints are all handled centrally by the University, however a number of students reported that they contacted the JCR first with their complaint. One student described how a JCR welfare officer, who was friends with the individual they accused of abuse, had spread their confidential conversation.

The same student was told by other members of the college that, in submitting a complaint, they “could ruin [their] life” and, as a result, felt actively encouraged not to complain. Another member of their college staff allegedly remarked, upon hearing the account of abuse, “oh, what a shame. [They] seem like a lovely [person]”.

In one instance, when a complaint was resolved and the accused student was forbidden from entering their college for the remainder of the academic year, the student could remain a member of the JCR, including holding a senior position on the executive. This is because the outcome of the complaints procedure, bar expulsion, does not necessarily bind colleges.

Although close-knit communities are one of the perks of the collegiate experience, for victims of abuse and assault, it was
reported that they also felt they were subject to judgement from their peers. For complainants, this involved cliques, gossiping, and students “taking sides” with either the alleged perpetrator or the victim.

It was reported that students were also not clearly signposted how to complain, and that breaching the issue first with JCR Welfare Officers could risk creating a “court of public opinion”, particularly with allegations against active JCR members. This was also reported to lead to potential biases in some cases and the bypassing of proper structures of complaint.

Additionally, JCR Welfare Officers may not have undertaken the necessary training to deal with serious cases. Abuse cases are also often delegated to JCR officers who are likely to lack the training and impartiality required to provide adequate support to victims of abuse. However, it was also reported that some students were subject to their accounts being misreported by senior college staff who inadvertently changed the substance of accounts, thereby diminishing the credibility of the original complaint.

These accounts are far from isolated incidents. An earlier Palatinate investigation found that there were 99 incidents of rape disclosed to Durham University from 2014 to 2019. These figures appeared in a paper submitted to the University Executive Committee last December. The paper also showed that there were 262 anonymous disclosures of abuse recorded between the 2014-15 and 2018-19 academic years. A total of 290 incidents were disclosed, around two-thirds of which concerned rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.

Despite the severe mental health impacts that complainants reported (stemming both from the initial incidents of abuse and the nature of the current student disciplinary procedures), University counselling has been described as “inadequate” to help them process their incidents.

One student confided that they had been assigned three different counsellors from the University, none of whom were helpful, and one of whom reversed the dynamic so that they felt that they had to counsel their counsellor. These alleged failures related to the incoherency of the collegiate-University relationship. One student reported that having been referred by their college welfare to go to the University, they were then redirected by the University back to their College.

Durham University’s counselling service experienced a 39% increase in the number of appointments attended in 2019-20, according to statistics published by the University. In 2019-20, 9,400 counselling service appointments were attended by Durham students, compared to 6,754 the previous year.

The University added “additional staffing resources as a consequence” of the increased demand. One Durham student who filed
a report for abusive, threatening, and harassing behaviour had her complaint categorised as “sexual assault and/or harassment”. She explained that she didn’t feel that the categorisation was suitable for the nature of her experience, and that her perpetrator’s requirement to re-do consent training felt “pointless” as a result.

Currently, UK universities function within national and international legal frameworks. However, there are no specific legislative duties on UK universities in terms of data collection, prevention, and response akin to those under US , such as; Title IX 1972; the Clery Act 1990/1998; VAWA Act 1994/2013; and Campus SaVE Act 2013. Action taken against perpetrators is thus at the discretion of each institution.

Durham’s Professor Nicole Westmarland, Director of the Durham Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse, said: “Universities have focused on sexual violence and forgotten or sidelined domestic violence by adhering to stereotypes about who experiences domestic violence and abuse and who is even in a serious relationship.”

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