How do Universities Deal with reports of Sexual Attacks by their Students?

We were lucky to be invited to a recent 2 Hare Court Chambers Seminar where Sallie Bennett-Jenkins QC spoke about the highly controversial topic of rape allegations surrounding University life. As a University law student it was particularly interesting to hear a barrister speak on what investigations and student representations are being made.

Sallie spoke about the ‘Zellick report’, which was produced in 1994, and stated:

“on the spectrum offences of such seriousness that substantive internal action prior to police investigations is out of the question. Allegations of rape and other sexual assaults… are examples of cases that must be investigated by the police and considered by the prosecuting authorities before they can be handled internally, even if the student suspect or victim/complainant or both express strong preference for the matter to be dealt with internally. The disciplinary process may be instituted but should then be deferred, except for the possibility of suspension or exclusion”.  (Zellick report 1994 paragraph 12).

To move away from Zellick, there has been an attitude shift. This is obvious where there has been a rise in internal reporting of sexual complaints directly to the University. Universities now understand their duty to safeguard their students and there is concern in relation to civil proceedings. Campaigns such as #MeToo have lead to a 42% rise in sexual harassment complaints since the movement launched, with that universities that hold prestige handle the matter quicker and discreetly to avoid the public backlash or civil proceedings that could leave them financially unstable.

Sallie spoke about how Universities are not particularly equipped to conduct criminal investigations. This is due to the fact that there are no specialist investigators to look into these allegations in a way that make students feel especially safe. Secondly, the responsibility falls on unqualified individuals, this shows students that their traumatic experience is not being handled competently. Lastly, there is a risk of contaminating witness accounts. In police investigations of rape or sexual assault victims are asked not to contact their attacker however, in a University questioning witnesses will could  be repeatedly questioned or coached into a confession to simply end the investigation as quickly and unproblematic as possible.

A recent survey by the student database Dig-in found that of the 49% of women surveyed only 5% reported these incidents to the police or their university. An undergraduate student from the University of Leeds made a complaint in the summer of 2018, her lecturer who investigated her complaint asked how much she was drinking before the alleged assault then that there was insufficient evidence to substantiate her complaint. They informed her that the student would be barred from the same building as her but this did not cover common/social areas such as the library or cafes. After suffering many panic attacks from seeing her attacker four times a day, she took the matter to the police and stated that they took her more seriously than the university.

How do we solve this? There are many unpublished, unimplemented, incomplete solutions for this but they are slowly, at least, being created. There is no time frame for their publications or implementations as Sallie says, “the wheels grind slowly”.

In conclusion, it is clear that universities are not readily prepared for sexual assault reports as they may feel it is “over their heads”. Until solutions are readily available to be implemented it is important for universities to safeguard their students on the road to reporting the matter to the police or counsel them about the situation as it can leave a student emotionally or physically distressed.


By Karimot Oladokun



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