Student left ‘suicidal’ after Sheffield hired private investigator to look into occupations

Students occupied The Diamond earlier this year to protest the uni’s link with arms companies

Sheffield University has come under fire for hiring a private investigator to look into two students and their alleged involvement in an occupation in one of the institute’s buildings.

According to The Guardian, the two students received letters on 9th November last year, in which they were told investigation firm Intersol Global had been hired to find out whether they were involved in the protest in late October.

The protest involved the occupation of a university building to protest University of Sheffield’s link to the arms industry.

Both letters explained that an independent investigator had been hired due to the “serious nature” of the event and that “a report of alleged misconduct by you is the subject of an investigation in line with the university’s regulations relating to the discipline of students”.

The students were also allegedly told that they could be facing suspension or expulsion from their studies, fines of up to £750 and bills up to £1,000 for any property damage.

Due to prior activism work, the two students believe they have been profiled by the university, as both say they can prove they were not in Sheffield at the time of the protest in question.

Martha, one of the students under investigation, has existing mental health problems and told The Guardian that the idea of a pending investigation during her final year left her with suicidal thoughts.

“I became quite unwell in January and found it really distressing that there was this process happening, and I didn’t know what I’d even been alleged to have done, or know how long it was going to last.

“It left me in quite a suicidal position because I felt there was no way out. It feels like, how have they got my name? There can be no evidence that I was there.”

Erin, the other student who uses they/them pronouns and asked that their real name wasn’t used, said they received the letter whilst studying abroad in Amsterdam.

They responded to the allegations, but it took three weeks for Intersol Global to make contact with them.

“They haven’t provided any evidence of their allegation, nor have they outlined what it was or what regulation the allegation breaches.”

After providing bank statements proving they were not in the city at the time, the university said they would contact witnesses from whom Erin provided statements.

“They have consistently worked from the assumption that I am guilty,” Erin said.

Erin and their parents have since written to the the vice-chancellor, stating that they believed the university has neglected its duty of care, with Erin adding: “At the end of all this I have to go back to Sheffield and do another year and write my dissertation and that leaves me quite uncomfortable and distressed.”

Co-director of movement building at student campaigning group People and Planet, Eva Spiekermann, said she had been made aware of certain tactics used by universities, including Warwick University’s collaboration with BP to monitor a student who was involved with People and Planet, both in-person and online.

Manchester University has also launched disciplinary actions against students after a building occupation protesting against high rent prices. This followed the university’s call to police on 19th February, followed by the launching of legal proceedings to remove them from the premises.

In reference to Sheffield University’s investigation, Spiekermann said: “Sheffield University’s response to student protest by hiring a private investigator to spy on their own students is alarming and clearly demonstrates the upside down priorities of the university: instead of scrutinising their own institutions’ ties with arms companies that are making a profit of war and destruction, the university more readily invests funds and capacity to profile and police the student body.

“Leaving the investigation and allegations against the two student activists hanging for months certainly impacts on the students’ ability to study, participate in student life and continue campaigning for a more equitable and just university system.”

Sheffield University told The Guardian it wasn’t able to comment on the specifics of live investigations, but said the students involved were offered wellbeing support.

A spokesperson for Intersol Global did, however, responded, telling The Guardian: “Intersol Global act as external impartial investigators for a variety of institutions, including higher education providers, and can confirm we are doing so in this case. The investigation is ongoing and the investigation process is confidential, as such it is our policy not to make any comment.”

Featured Image Courtesy of Sheffield Action Group on Twitter.

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