Cambridge sexual misconduct rule change ‘re-victimises’ students

Woman affected speaks of feeling abandoned and being turned ‘from survivor to victim’

One of the women affected by Cambridge University’s decision not to investigate some student complaints of sexual misconduct, including rape, said it has left her feeling abandoned and re-victimised.

“Faye” (not her real name) said this summer’s ruling by Cambridge’s discipline committee that sexual misconduct should no longer be covered by the university’s general disciplinary regulations for students had led to her rape complaint against a male student being dropped and denied her justice.

She added the decision had turned her “from a survivor to a victim”. “I wasn’t fighting to get justice for what happened to me any more – I was powerless,” she said.

Cambridge academics and student union officials condemned the university’s response to the ruling, which they said evaded the fact vulnerable women had been left without any internal means to pursue complaints of sexual assault and rape.

Faye decided to speak out after one of the chairs of Cambridge’s disciplinary committee, which is independent of the university’s central administration, ruled in June that the general regulations for discipline covered allegations of harassment but not sexual misconduct.

She said the decision came eight months after she submitted her rape complaint in October 2018 and university staff had previously given her no indication that her case fell outside the scope of the disciplinary procedures. The ruling also led to another student’s case of alleged sexual assault being dismissed.

The university also informed Faye that even if the chair was wrong about the scope of the disciplinary regulations, he considered there was insufficient evidence to proceed with the case.

During the case, the defendant was allowed to review and respond to Faye’s written evidence. She on the other hand did not have an opportunity to respond to his version of events because the case was dismissed before a full hearing of the discipline committee. The university told her she could not appeal against the decision but could make a complaint about the handling of the case, which she is doing.

The student described the complaint process as “eight months of hell”. She said she suffered from constant anxiety because she feared seeing her alleged rapist on campus. “I was getting panic attacks. I suffered from insomnia. I was falling behind with my studies and not going to lectures.”

Faye said it was “heartbreaking” to discover her case would not be pursued. “I was shouting. I was sobbing. I was mad for how long this had gone on with no hint that there was any issue beforehand. It’s letting [the alleged perpetrator] off completely scot-free.”

The university is introducing a procedure on 1 October that will define sexual misconduct as a breach of the rules of behaviour for students. But this system is prospective, meaning that complaints about sexual misconduct that occurred before that date – even if reported later – will be investigated under the old procedures.

Barrister Charlotte Proudman, a research fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge, condemned the university’s senior pro-vice-chancellor, Graham Virgo, for claiming in a letter to the Guardian that all students were being protected from harassment.

Proudman said: “There’s a lack of acknowledgement that they have let down a number of women whose complaints have been dropped because of this.”

She said she would caution student victims of sexual misconduct from making complaints to the university. “I think the process is re-victimising, it’s re-traumatising. I think at the moment it’s not fit for purpose and causing more damage and destruction for complainants.”

In a letter to the Guardian, Kate Litman, the women’s officer at Cambridge students’ union, warned that the rule change would continue to harm student victims of sexual violence long after the new system comes into force. “As it is often months or years before survivors of sexual violence feel ready to report, this recent ruling will continue to affect students for years to come,” she wrote.

She added that Cambridge’s response to the rule change had misrepresented the problem and disregarded legitimate student concerns. She called on the university to resolve the situation, warning that it had “undermined student trust in their commitment to tackling sexual violence and safeguarding survivors”.

A Cambridge University spokesman said it had no further comment about the ruling.


David Batty

The GuardianTramp

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