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Good practice in investigating allegations of sexual assault and harassment on campus

  • 27 November 2023
  • By Owen Bubbers-Jones

Allegations of sexual harassment and assault by students aren’t going away with awareness campaigns and helplines. A new Oxford University study has found that one in four female students at the university had experienced some form of sexual assault in the previous year. While there are sector-wide standards in place, there needs to be more clarity and determination around implementing best practice in investigations.

Recent media reports have, again, pushed university administrators and how they deal with sexual harassment and assault cases into the spotlight; the kinds of stories that suggest an uneven picture when it comes to attitudes to allegations and the processes used. Worst of all, there have been suggestions that some institutions lean towards secrecy in handling allegations.

Policy development is needed to steer the sector to a place where institutions and their leaders can face these kinds of sensitive and complex allegations with more confidence. Turning the tide on sexual harassment and assault cases will only happen with a change in culture among students — led by the professional response from the institution. That doesn’t come from threats and warnings of zero tolerance, but openness and trust: the certainty that worries and complaints will be listened to, there will be open conversations and a fair-minded investigation. In other words, everyone knows what’s expected from each other, and what will happen if boundaries are crossed — there’s no hiding behind secrecy, fear or privilege.

Universities need to be encouraged to work together on building a more solid grounding of processes around their response and investigations of sexual harassment and assault. This might involve, for example, a hybrid approach among universities, developing internal resources and seconding investigators between institutions, alongside maintaining the freedom to bring in external investigation expertise when it’s needed.

To do this, the sector first of all needs to be given direction over a number of grey areas. For example, should decision-making processes tend towards an informal approach, or on the formal side with the standard use of legal representation? In the event of an alleged sexual assault, evidence must be gathered, relevant support services signposted and appropriate legal input provided when needed. But bringing in lawyers can raise the stakes all round. In most cases they will be unnecessary — and universities should not, and are simply not equipped to, act as a ‘surrogate court’. The prospect of formal, more assertive cross-examination means people are less likely to come forward; and there’s the age-old problem: wealthier people can hire the best legal representation.

A more informal approach is based on making use of staff internally with good people skills, empathy and understanding, backed up by good training and CPD around the specifics. A team that grows in confidence and capability over time through shared best practice amongst itself and with other universities, identifying where there’s progress and where the challenges are. That includes training around the role of trauma, and how the effects of trauma (on both sides of a sexual harassment and assault case) can impact on the investigation and panel hearing processes.

For a more balanced, informal approach to work, the internal investigators who are balancing the role alongside their day jobs need to be given the support, tools and space to carry out investigations thoroughly. All panel members and panel chairs must go through a rigorous selection process to ensure suitability and a genuine aptitude – let’s not assume that senior academics are automatically suited to the role. Rather than just assuming a personal tutor should be involved, extra care is needed when considering whether an investigation should be handled by a man or woman to encourage openness. There also needs to be on-hand access to advice and services from an external investigation provider, to deal with the more complex and serious cases — for support on when and how to liaise most effectively with the police, for example.

Urgently, universities need to make sure any staff taking part in investigations — panel members, chairs and admin — have the training to ensure processes are followed correctly and make decisions which have significant implications for people’s lives.

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  1. Denisa says:

    Were psychologists involved in this case at all?

  2. I love the way you talked about TV drama. Very nice thought, I can see your points clearly, and I certainly agree with you
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