How rape threats in a boys group chat tarnished a university’s golden reputation

An investigation into 11 male Warwick students lead to national outrage at the university’s handling of the case and victims involved. But how did Warwick recover?

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UK

It’s been a year since Warwick University made headlines for all the wrong reasons. The university came head-to-head with one of the largest media storms after the exposure of a group chat, made up of 11 male Warwick students, who threatened to rape and mutilate female members of their friendship group.

Students protested, signed petitions and national papers reported on the chaos that was erupting on Warwick University campus. Warwick’s illustrious reputation of being the ninth best university in the UK, where most courses require applicants to have at least one A-grade at A-Level, began to slip away into headlines of inadequacy.

One year on, it appears that Warwick’s issues run far deeper than a group chat of 11 boys. The discovery of the group chat saw the uncovering of a deeper disciplinary disaster, allegations of a rape culture at Warwick, and criticisms of Warwick University’s administration.

All of this has led to Warwick University facing a damning question: Does it care for the safety and wellbeing of its female students? And how did their handling of a boys group chat lead to their elite reputation being so tarnished?

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The exposure of the group chat

“Rape the limbless freak”, “go wild and rape 100 freshers”, “rape her to teach her a lesson.” These were just some of the messages being sent by a group of 11 boys about their closest female friends in April last year.

Lucy*, who was one of the girls named in the conversation, had been shown screenshots of the chat by the girl who had discovered the messages.

Lucy told The Warwick Tab seeing her friends send messages threatening to rape her made her have a “physical reaction”. She said they made her want to “throw up.”

She described the pressure the boys placed on her to keep the screenshots to herself, urging her against taking them to the university. Lucy said: “One [of the boys] tried to reach out to me and pressure me into not revealing what I had seen to anyone. I was in such a state of shock and denial that I went along with what he said and didn’t speak up.”

On 25th April 2018 another two girls who were also named in the chat decided to formally complain to the university, putting their trust in the institution and its disciplinary systems. The 11 boys in the chat were temporarily suspended as the investigation proceeded.

During this time it was revealed the boys had shared sexually explicit content in the group chat. This was sent on to West Midlands police, who opened their own investigation. The investigation was eventually dropped.

On 8th May, The Warwick Tab and The Boar published screenshots of the group chat. The following day The Warwick Tab published the names and identities of some of the boys who had made the messages. Following this, chief investigator Peter Dunn refused to respond to any requests made by The Tab in relation to the investigation.

The publishing of the chats gained campus and nationwide attention. Students protested on campus and major news outlets reported on the messages.

"The true victims in all this are the girls named"

Posted by The Tab on Friday, May 11, 2018

In June 2018, Warwick University issued a statement making a disciplinary decision on all 11 boys. After a disciplinary panel had convened, it was revealed one student was to be banned from campus for life and another two students were to be banned for 10 years.

Six of the 11 boys were committed of major offences, and three of the boys were committed of minor offences. A minor offence is equivalent to bringing a shopping trolley onto campus. Two of the boys were given no punishment.

By Christmas of that same year the investigation was closed. However, it was not until several months later that the university decided to backtrack on their punishments.

A questionable investigation

The Tab first heard of the university’s decision to revoke some of the boys’ punishments in October 2018, with the biggest change being the two boys who had 10 year bans had their punishments reduced to just one year. At the time Warwick Students’ Union denied all claims made by The Warwick Tab and labelled them “inaccurate.” However, it was reported in January 2019 that the claims made by The Warwick Tab were in fact correct.

The girls named claim they were the last to hear of the reverses to the punishments made, and had not been contacted by the university directly. This mistake was put down to a staff member “being on holiday”.

This was just the start of a stream of inadequacies on behalf of the university’s disciplinary processes, as it was soon made public that the chief investigator of this case was the person also in charge of making Warwick University look reputable – the university’s Head of Media and Press Relations, Peter Dunn.

The BBC documentary revealed how the complainants in the case were receiving investigation e-mails and draft press statements from Peter Dunn, leading to allegations that Dunn was practicing a conflict of interest given the widespread media attention the case was getting.

While Dunn reassured the girls that he had devolved his press responsibilities to others, he continued to e-mail the complainants with draft press statements.

Furthermore, Peter Dunn has been accused of subjecting the girls named to aggressive questioning. He asked questions about their sexual history with the boys in the chat, and even labelled one complaint an “unreliable witness”, a statement that the complainant still does not understand.

One victim spoke on the Victoria Derbyshire show explaining how Peter Dunn had subjected her to aggressive questioning. She explained: “We were just told that it would be an interview about the chat that we found. But when we got there, it was very aggressive questioning. It was as if we were on trial. We were made to feel the entire time that we had to justify why we were upset by this. We were made the whole time to feel like, we had to clarify our stories.”

A specialist from Coventry Rape and Sexual Assault Centre, Dianne Whitfield, criticised Warwick’s approach to the girls in the investigation. She expressed her surprise at the girls’ decision to continue with the investigation, stating if the university was to pursue such a line of questioning it was necessary to have support systems in place.

Lucy told The Warwick Tab that the university being aware of her existence did nothing to help nor support her. She had been given reassurance that two specific boys would not be returning, however following the news of the reverses she was no longer sure.

By January 2019, news of the university’s failure to support the victims and inadequate disciplinary process started to reach students on campus.

The victims, silent no more

In an exclusive report by The Tab, it was revealed that a second group chat was created by the boys after the closure of the first. The chat, called “Boys 2.0.”, showed some of the members expressing little to no remorse for their actions. One of them even said “let’s do it all again.”

The exposure of the second group chat was at the same time it was publicly confirmed two of the boys had their punishments reduced from a 10 year campus ban to just one year.

This meant the boys could potentially be studying with the same girls they been making rape threats against the following academic year.

It was at this point, after a disastrous investigation, an inconsistent disciplinary system and the mistreatment of the victims, that some of the girls took to social media, voicing their concern and anger at the university.

Here we saw the start of a hashtag that soon went viral: #ShameOnYouWarwick

The revelation of a second group chat, the role of Peter Dunn and the lack of support the girls received led to growing action from students. The pressure was expanding day by day, and the university was being forced into a corner.

At the time Lucy, who was the brains behind #ShameOnYouWarwick, told The Warwick Tab: “We have to stop making excuses for rape culture in UK universities. It’s 2019. There is no room for nor are there adequate excuses for such behaviour. Since I first spoke up about my experiences with the group chat, I’ve had so many brave women and men open up to me about stories of sexual assault on UK campuses, and even more vile stories of similar group chats.”

She wrote an open letter to Warwick University saying the uni had “humiliated the girls” and “forgotten about the victims.”

It was not long before parents of students, staff, current students and alumna began to speak out , and pressure on Warwick University grew.

Anger from all students and staff

By 30th January 2019 departments started speaking out against the university, condemning their handling of the investigation.

Professor Emma Mason wrote a direct letter to Warwick’s Vice-Chancellor Stuart Croft expressing her “shock and disgust” and “dismay at the news”. Shortly after several other departments, including Politics and Classics and Ancient History, spoke out.

A petition to ban the members of the group chat from returning to Warwick University received over 84,000 signatures.

Several days later, Stuart Croft released a statement that the two boys who had their punishments reduced to one year from 10 years would not be returning to campus. It is unclear if this was due to the demands of the university or the independent choice of the boys.

Students and staff continued to voice their anger and dismay. Nine student societies co-hosted a march, which hundreds attended. Warwick Students’ Union condemned the university, calling an emergency meeting with Stuart Croft and criticising their handling of events.

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A symbolic moment in the march came at the end when students gathered outside University House, the location where the girls had been interviewed by Peter Dunn and where the university administration is located.

Warwick University continued to defend the role of Peter Dunn in the investigation. They told the BBC: “We continue to support the investigating officer for this case, Peter Dunn. We appreciate there are legitimate questions raised about the university’s handling of this extremely delicate case.”

In light of the criticism they received, they launched an independent review of their disciplinary processes. The review consisted of “an independent external review of our student disciplinary and appeals process…”

The outcome of the review is set to be publicly available in July 2019.

Has Warwick University changed at all?

A year on, and the victims of the chat and students across campus are still searching for answers.

How could Warwick get this so wrong?

How could they fail their students so dramatically?

In May it was revealed Warwick University had also allowed a student committed of rape to continue to study on campus, use campus facilities and participate in a Varsity sports event. The university also failed to report the case to the police.

The Tab also revealed two of the Warwick group chat victims are suing the university, with the assistance of an American lawyer. Lawyer Dr Ann Olivarius’ previous court cases against universities have been settled at £100,000.

Regardless of this, the victims of the chat continue to deal with the anxieties and trauma of the messages that were sent about them. Anna* said the incident had ruined her university experience.

Pointing to the institutional flaws that allowed for such an incident to take place, Lucy stated: “Not only must we challenge our own perception of rape culture, but we must challenge the institutional structures that allow this culture to flourish on UK campuses.”

She urged us all to abandon the idea that “boys will be boys,” adding “we have to stop looking to women’s sexual histories and using this as justification for this behaviour. We have to stop using privacy as an excuse for this behaviour.”

Lucy told The Warwick Tab: “We all need to be active allies in fighting against the culture – god forbid such behaviour is still ongoing by the time your sons and daughters attend university. It’s time we stop being bystanders and start opening our eyes.”

In response to the BBC documentary, Vice-Chancellor Stuart Croft said: “We want to apologise for any part we played in causing distress to members of our community. Sexual misconduct or harassment of any kind is completely unacceptable and we are committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the Warwick community.”

*The names of the girls have been changed in order to protect their identity and anonymity.

Related stories:

Two Warwick group chat victims are suing the university

‘Let’s do it all again’: Second Warwick boys group chat exposed

11 Warwick students suspended for threatening to rape female Warwick students in group chat