Petition launched over university's handling of sex assault complaints
PUBLISHED: 12:57 18 June 2019 | UPDATED: 12:59 18 June 2019
Hundreds of students have signed a petition demanding urgent changes to the way the University of Essex investigates sexual assault and harassment allegations.
Nearly 1,000 people have backed an online appeal by the University of Essex Students' Union which calls for rapid and fundamental changes to the university's complaints system.
Setting out a 10-point action plan, union bosses said delays in investigating sexual assault and harassment allegations - for which the university has apologised - were "totally unacceptable".
"The toll this has taken on the students affected cannot be overestimated and cannot be undone," they added.
University chiefs said changes will be in place by the beginning of the next academic year.
However, the union also wants the university to:
- Introduce "proper" support for students reporting complaints
- Ensure all investigations into sexual harassment are resolved within 60 days
- Roll out compulsory consent and bystander training for all students
- Urgently undertake a detailed review of those affected by sexual harassment
Their plea comes as a Freedom of Information request submitted to the university revealed some sexual assault and harassment cases have taken several months to be dealt with.
This is despite the university aiming to resolve complaints within 60 days.
'This is so important'
A university investigation into three allegations of rape was still open as of May 2019, out of a total seven rape allegations made at the Colchester campus in a three-year period to the end of March 2019. Two were not reported to the police.
Meanwhile, of eight sexual assault allegations made to the university in the same period, five were not reported to police and one was still being investigated as of May 2019.
Another allegation of sexual assault and rape, reported in October 2018, was not reported to the police and was still under investigation as of May 2019.
University bosses said it is up to students to decide whether they report allegations to the police.
They do not make reports on their behalf, but will offer support if they choose to do so.
They have apologised to students whose investigations took too long to resolve.
One student, who has signed the petition, was a victim of harassment as a first year.
"After nothing being done about it, I feel this is so important," the student wrote.
"I ended up spending a year and a half having to sit in the same room as the person."
The petition, which has so far gathered nearly 1,000 signatures, can be viewed here.
What happens when someone makes a complaint?
Students can raise concerns at a number of places across the university at its three campuses, bosses said.
These include the 24/7 security office and the online 'Report and Support' service launched in May 2018.
However, neither of these will investigate cases, but will instead signpost people to appropriate channels.
Complaints against students are investigated within the Student Conduct Office.
'We are listening'
University registrar Bryn Morris said: "It is vital we work together with students to stamp out any incidents of sexual harassment or assault on our campuses and only through our combined effort will this be possible.
"We are listening to our students and we will have changes in place for the beginning of the new academic year.
"We would urge all students to work with us on solutions by contributing to the review of our code of student conduct."
The university has since made the following commitments:
- To introduce a new code of student conduct before the autumn term starts
- Feedback from students, the students' union and women's officer will be integrated into the design of the system, to ensure it works and is easier to understand
- To draw on independent external advice to ensure they are creating a fair and transparent process, which supports students who make complaints.
Mr Morris added: "We're sorry if some students are disappointed with the way we've dealt with their complaints and the time it may have taken.
"Our zero tolerance policy means we always investigate cases thoroughly and take decisions based on the evidence available to us.
"Although we believe we've responded appropriately we accept that the time it has taken to resolve some of these cases has left students in a very difficult position due to the uncertainty they've felt."
A new member of the student conduct team is being recruited to "significantly increase" its capacity.
The university is also reviewing sanctions available to the Student Conduct as part of a wider evaluation - to ensure they are creating a "fair and transparent process" which fully supports students who make complaints.