I was raped by a Birmingham student and the uni only offered to send a letter to my attacker
‘The whole experience of dealing with the complaint was almost as bad as the night itself’
Halfway through her second year of university, Alice met David at a friend’s birthday party – he was a mutual friend of her coursemate, charming and attractive. Having danced with him all night, the pair went home together, nothing wildly different from your standard uni night out. There, Alice says she was raped.
Two years later, Alice decided that she was ready to come forward to the university, hoping for closure in her final year as a Birmingham student.
The University of Birmingham refused to investigate the complaint, as the alleged incident happened off campus. Instead, they offered to send Alice’s alleged attacker a letter reminding him of the university’s code of conduct. He never faced disciplinary action from the university.
After going through a reporting process she describes as “almost as bad as the incident itself”, Alice came forward to The Birmingham Tab, determined that no-one else would have to go through the same ordeal that she did. Both hers and David’s names have been changed throughout the story.
Content warning: Sexual assault
‘You never think it will happen to you…I didn’t know how to react’
Like every other UoB student, Alice was a Fab superfan, always making sure she had her ticket well in advance – no last minute scrambling on Fab’N’Fresh. She usually stayed upstairs in Joe’s until she and her friends were kicked out at 4am, dancing to cheesy pop at the edges of the room, needing space to properly dance, as opposed to the busy side-to-side shuffle in the centre. “Especially in my second year, I was a bit of a fiend for going on nights out – I’d like to think that I was a good laugh,” says Alice.
A friend of Alice’s recalls how they often skipped their usual spin classes the next morning in favour of leftover Roosters chips, or maybe cold cheesy garlic bread from Pizzaland.
In one of several interviews The Birmingham Tab conducted with Alice, she describes herself as not necessarily popular, but extremely social, always surrounded by friends. They studied upstairs in the Avon Room together, chatting quietly whilst they worked, with Alice at the centre, always trying to bring her various friendship circles together. She was warm, kind to everyone, and never wanted anyone feeling left out of the group.
At the end of the first term, it was Alice’s friend’s birthday, a girl she knew from her sports team and was extremely close to. The friend hosted a large pre-drinks, with over 30 people crammed into her narrow Selly Oak home before they headed out. Alice didn’t know most of them, but she recognised faces here and there, mutual friends and acquaintances she knew from around campus.
When Alice got to pres, her friend quickly introduced her to David, a boy she vaguely recognised as a friend of her coursemates. She didn’t talk to him much whilst at her friend’s house – she was too busy drinking the cheap rose wine from Drinks 2 Go, dancing and taking pictures with her friend’s mates from home. But by the time they got to the club, David and Alice hit it off, dancing with each other most of the night.
David was good looking, tall, and he kept on buying the drinks whilst they danced. As the night drew to a close, Alice decided to go home with him and they walked back to her house together from the club, stopping at a takeaway for some pizza. It wasn’t the first time that Alice had slept with someone new after a night out, although she describes how in retrospect, she didn’t realise quite how drunk she was.
When they got back to Alice’s house in Selly Oak, the pair had sex. The first time it happened, it was consensual, although Alice described how it was rough, and she just lay there waiting for it to be over. The second time they had sex it was very much non-consensual, with David making no attempts to wait for permission – Alice was “barely conscious”, and she remembers telling him “no” several times. In the morning, she told a friend there was “blood everywhere”. Alice remembers how she lay in her bed, scared to acknowledge what had happened, whilst David lay beside her, making no attempts to leave.
Panicking, Alice texted her housemate, who helped her clean up and kick David out of the house.
These are the texts Alice sent her friend whilst David was still in her bed:
She then swore her housemate to secrecy, not ready for anyone else to find out. “From that point on, I just wanted to forget about it. For a long time, maybe because of the way it happened, I wasn’t sure if it was maybe my fault. It took me a while to come to terms with it.”
‘I really had a lot of faith in the university – I thought surely they’ve got to do something’
Alice continued on with her student life as before, but as the months passed, she realised things weren’t the same, no matter how much they seemed on the surface. She worried constantly about how she was coming across to people, was anxious and distracted, and as the months passed, her grades suffered significantly as she tried to process her assault. She was apprehensive on a night out, unable to enjoy herself in the same way she had before. When Alice met her boyfriend five months later, she remembers how she felt she had to tell him about her assault as early as possible, just in case she didn’t feel comfortable having sex or wanted it to stop. “Everyone has their secrets, but it was a big deal for me to talk about something so intimate about myself so early on in the relationship.”
To make matters worse, she continued to see David around campus, playing sports, going on with his life as normal. She describes how she ran into his best friend’s girlfriend at a party, and found herself forced into a traumatic conversation about her alleged rapist. When she ran into him at Gradball last year, she was so upset that she had to be taken home. Not knowing the real reasons, her friends gave her some stick for cutting the night short. “It’s not something I feel comfortable discussing with them,” she says.
As she entered the end of her fourth and final year, two years after her alleged assault, she decided she was ready to report to the University, hoping to find a sense of safety on campus once again. She didn’t want to have to see David around the University, especially with her final year exams coming up.
Alice approached Holly Battrick and Alif Trevathan, the Guild Women and Non-Binary Officers 2018-19, who referred her on to a member of the university’s Student Wellbeing and Partnership team. Alice told The Birmingham Tab how they helped to fast-track support for her mental health and explained the process of reporting her alleged assault, eventually setting up a meeting with Student Conduct at the end of March to discuss the official complaints procedure. However, at this meeting, Alice was met with a tangled web of procedures and guidelines – regulations that neither the Women’s Officers nor Alice had known about or anticipated.
Despite the student code of conduct, which explicitly prohibits the sexual assault or harassment of another student, University of Birmingham legislation states that there is no requirement to pursue disciplinary measures against a student attacker if the incident takes place off-campus.
For Alice, living in Selly Oak, this meant that there was a drastic limit to the university’s disciplinary powers, and she was told that it would be unlikely, but not impossible, that a complaint would be upheld against David, especially given the two year time span since the alleged attack and the lack of forensic evidence.
Although the first meeting had been discouraging, Alice still remained optimistic. “I really had a lot of faith in the university – I thought surely they’ve got to do something, especially as there seemed, at least to me, a lot of evidence.” She submitted her complaint against David to Student Conduct on 8th April 2019, detailing her alleged assault and attaching the text messages she’d exchanged on the day, as well as the details of her housemate who had witnessed the aftermath.
On 7th May, almost a month after her initial complaint, Alice received a letter back from the university, informing her they would not be launching an investigation into her complaint, citing the limitations in the university regulations and their ability to fully investigate.
As opposed to launching an investigation, they proposed to send a letter to David’s student house, explaining that an anonymous student had raised a complaint and that he ought to do better – merely a reminder of the code of conduct he was expected to uphold. There would be no repercussions for him or his degree, and Alice’s anonymity had no guarantee if David chose to question it formally to the university.
This is the letter the university sent to Alice, explaining what they would do:
Alice soon requested a follow up meeting with the university in order to raise her concerns about the lack of investigation and the meagre resolution they had offered. “I was worried that someone else would have to go through the same thing I did – I don’t even know if he knows what he did was wrong.”
According to transcripts of this meeting obtained by The Birmingham Tab, Alice was told that the university could not guarantee that David would even read the letter, nor could they “guarantee confidentiality”. When she raised concerns about the protection this could offer her, especially given that he could access who submitted the complaint, there was nothing they could offer. There was no reassurance of safety, nor of closure – as soon as the letter was sent, she would be left out of the process, with any meetings, discussions and decisions based solely between David and the university, Alice’s voice excluded from the conversation. Alice asked for the letter not to be sent.
Alice says the welfare and counselling support she eventually got from the uni was excellent, but describes how the whole ordeal ultimately lacked empathy for her situation. “All these meetings that I had, it didn’t seem like they cared or were taking it seriously. I know they had to be professional, but they were just cold.
“It didn’t feel like I was the victim in that situation – it felt like they were trying to protect him, focusing on how it might affect his course and his exams,” Alice said. “What about me, where did I come into it? I was the one who had been sexually assaulted.”
‘They’re shunning responsibility for this issue’
Holly Battrick and Alif Trevathan supported Alice throughout her journey, and tried to escalate the issues exemplified in Alice’s case to senior management. However, the pair told The Birmingham Tab they “received a lot of pushback and resistance” to formally questioning the complaints procedure, with questions allegedly raised by the legal team about the “poor men who may get dragged through the mud.”
Holly and Alif condemned the university’s process, with Holly telling The Birmingham Tab that “the location issue was completely mundane – they’re suggesting that if someone assaults someone on that side of the boundary they’ll investigate, but on the other side they won’t. The majority of assault cases happen in the home, and most students don’t live in student accommodation. They’re shunning responsibility for this issue.”
Much like Alice, students in both Selly Oak and those in first year partner accommodation such as Liberty Gardens are left vulnerable by this arbitrary gap in the University’s disciplinary process – a significant issue, when 37% of sexual assaults occur in the victim’s home.
‘They should feel ashamed, and they need to do better’
A recent investigation by the BBC demonstrates that Alice’s case is in no way the exception to the rule – with UK universities having received more than 1,400 allegations of sexual misconduct during the past academic year, many other victims feel entirely let down by the reporting procedure.
When Alice began university back in 2015, she didn’t think that she’d be graduating on such a bitter note. Fear and anxiety have left a stain on two and a half years of her student experience, she tells The Birmingham Tab, and there’s little action the university can now take to change that – no letter was sent to David, and for Alice, who graduated this summer, any reforms would be a prime example of too little too late. However, she is determined that the University of Birmingham, and higher education as a whole, do better.
“They have a duty of care to their students. I know they only have so much power, but they put so much money into useless crap. There are real people behind the student ID numbers – they have no idea what it means to go through something like this. They should feel ashamed, and they need to do better,” says Alice.
A spokesperson for the University of Birmingham said: “We commend the incredible courage of all victims of sexual assault or rape and recognise the strength it takes to speak out about their experiences.
“It is vital that students feel able to raise these issues and that the University can support them in making a complaint, investigating as appropriate. Which is why we take any concerns seriously and why we are always looking to improve our approach, working with the Guild of Students. We will continue to investigate complaints of sexual assault under disciplinary processes where we can do so fairly and effectively.
The University of Birmingham explained to The Birmingham Tab that they have invested significantly in their ‘Your Report, We Support’ system (an anonymous reporting tool for victims of sexual harassment, violence and assault), and they continue to work with the Guild of Students to deliver the Not On campaign. They also facilitate victims’ access to specialist support and counselling, working with the police to support any formal action the victim may choose to take.
“Our priority remains supporting the student concerned and ensuring that everyone is treated fairly and sensitively. The University gave careful consideration to the complaint, the serious nature of the allegations, and what action could be taken.
“When a student makes an initial complaint of sexual assault, we offer a meeting with a ‘Responder’ who is trained to support students who have experienced sexual assault and help them decide what they want to do. We always encourage students to report the incident to the police as they are empowered to investigate alleged serious criminal offences, which could enable the University to take further action. However, without the powers or specialist resources that come with a police investigation, with the more limited powers under our Code its more difficult for the University to undertake a fair investigation, particularly after any length of time.
“The proposal to write to the alleged perpetrator reflects best practice from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator and we are reassured that the student felt that the welfare and counselling support was excellent. Regardless of a student’s decision to report the matter to the police, our wellbeing services will work with the individual and specialist external services and we want to ensure every student knows they can approach the University’s specialist services for support and advice. More information on accessing support is available here.”
However, for Alice the process left a lot to be desired. Now having graduated, she says: “The whole experience of dealing with the complaint is almost as bad as the night itself. I just want my situation to help others not have to go through something like this.”
* Names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved
If you have been affected by any of the issues discussed in this article, you can contact The Survivors Trust here.