Opinion: Students should not face disciplinary action for reporting harassment and assault

Covid guidelines are important, but they must not play into a wider culture of victim-blaming

CN: discussion of harassment and assault

It was revealed this week that Jesus College students who reported an instance of harassment or abuse, including sexual harassment, could themselves face disciplinary action for the circumstances of their claim. If the situation in which the incident occurred wasn’t compliant with Covid-19 regulations, the complainant could also be investigated and punished for their role in breaking Covid guidelines. 

Faced with widespread student outrage and two open letters, one of which has over 1300 signatures (13/11), Jesus has since sent out an email to its students which pledged to review the guidelines and acknowledged the “evident distress” caused. But this is symptomatic of a wider problem: college decision-makers don’t understand the stigma and powerful cultures of victim-blaming which already work to prevent individuals from reporting instances of harassment and assault of all kinds.

Credit: Camfess

In practice, what Jesus College referred to as a “minor, inadvertent breach of these regulations” may have been overlooked and dismissed. The full statement from Jesus declared that “the need for proportionality will be at the forefront of the Dean of College’s mind”, and that the College’s general policy was “to shy away from draconian sanctions”; presumably an attempt to reassure students that whilst disciplinary action wasn’t ruled out, it was unlikely. 

Whilst the rationale behind this wasn’t to discourage individuals from reporting, it would achieve exactly that. What would constitute a “minor, inadvertent breach” was not detailed, and the possibility of disciplinary action through infringement of Covid guidelines would have a hugely deterring effect on the proportion of people who report. Trust in the university to adequately handle complaints is already tenuous; threatening students with punitive action pushes it further to the brink of nonexistence.

Even without the pandemic, assault and harassment are chronically underreported. When it comes to sexual assault, one of the open letters to Jesus said that pre-Covid, “only around 15% of people who experience sexual violence report it to the police”. The nature of underreporting makes it impossible to uncover exact statistics, but it is likely that in a university context where complaints are often reported to university institutions rather than the police, the proportion is even lower. 

A survey conducted by Revolt Sexual Assault in 2017-2018 about sexual violence within a university context found that only 6% of those who had experienced sexual assault or harassment made a formal report, either to the university or to the police. Whilst sexual harassment and assault is an issue that reporting can only scratch the surface of, it is a vital part of justice for survivors, and must not be discouraged through threats of disciplinary punishment.

A culture of victim-blaming is a cornerstone of this issue. Responsibility is pushed onto the victim: statements such as ‘what was she wearing?’ or ‘should have been more careful’ are far too common and deeply harmful. The potential for a survivor to face disciplinary action is victim-blaming to the letter: they are quite literally implicated in the crime. 

At the same time, sexual assault and harassment claims are not the only kind affected by such a punitive policy. The open letter by Jesus students writes that the College has created “an environment where students experiencing serious racial, sexual, or homophobic abuse are afraid to seek college support” because of the threat of disciplinary action. All forms of harassment and assault are affected by cultures of silence. Moreover, issues such as sexual harassment are deeply intersectional, and surveys done by Loud and Clear, a Cambridge student campaign working to tackle sexual assault and harassment, found that students of colour were less likely to formally report instances of sexual assault.

Racial harassment itself is also underreported at a university level. A Tab investigation in September examined racial harassment complaints at Cambridge colleges, including reasons why students do not report experiences which meet the university definition of racial harassment. Amongst the issues raised were those of bureaucracy, inaccessibility, lack of awareness of procedures, and institutional trust. The last of these is particularly significant: in order to make a report, an individual has to trust that their personal and often traumatic experience will be sufficiently handled by an institution which respects their wellbeing. The outcry and backlash shows the extent to which Jesus College has damaged this within their own community in the past few days.

Jesus College = Sue Sylvester

In response to the email sent out by Jesus College, Marina McCready from Loud and Clear, told the Cambridge Tab: “This response from the Senior Tutor is promising- [I] am especially glad that they will be consulting experts this time. I have to raise an eyebrow at the apology ‘for the evident distress this has caused’, a classic method of avoiding properly apologising and avoiding responsibility. This aside, I really hope the situation will be rectified and students at Jesus will feel safe and supported. Institutional trust for victims of sexual harassment/assault is very low, especially in Cambridge. Jesus have a lot of work to do to ensure victims do feel confident in the college.”

Jesus College’s U-turn on its disciplinary policy is certainly welcomed, and it will be watched closely by students at all colleges to ensure that the policy is sufficiently revised. Whilst the email sent by the Senior Tutor acknowledged its mismanagement – “we don’t always get things right the first time” – it is crucial that responsibility is taken, guidelines are changed, and that College Covid policies do not harm those they are supposed to protect.

The pandemic might be on everyone’s mind, but it is not the only threat to student welfare this term. Fundamentally, all colleges have a duty of care and must ensure that students can disclose instances of assault without risking punitive action.

When approached for comment, a spokesperson from Jesus College said: “Our primary concern is for the safety and welfare of our community members. Our student union was keen that the College provided guidance on whether disciplinary action for violating COVID-19 regulations would be dismissed in cases of sexual harassment or abuse.

“We recognize the depth of feeling our initial legally-focused guidance, which does not offer blanket immunity in all scenarios, has given rise to. We will be further reviewing our guidance and incorporating advice from experts in sexual abuse support.

“As a College we have been active participants in the University of Cambridge’s Breaking Silence campaign against sexual harassment. We will continue to prioritise the needs of students who have been the victims of harassment or abuse. We will always encourage students to come forward and use our extensive welfare support, and will continue to urgently investigate these matters where reporting students want us to.”

Featured image credits: RodhullandemuCreative Commons License