Sexual assault complaints go unnoticed for four months after SU reporting tool breaks

Three student complaints went completely unnoticed in this time

Content warning: This article contains discussion of and statistics surrounding sexual assault.

Sexual assault cases at Sussex Uni went unnoticed for four months as a result of the SU sexual assault reporting tool being broken, The Sussex Tab can reveal.

On 17th April, almost seven months ago, Sussex Snow made a formal complaint to the SU and reported that one of their members had sexually assaulted another member. On the same day, the SU responded and offered advice to the Sussex Snow committee. They said: “With a situation like this I fully recommend the student either goes directly to the police or reports it through our complaints page,” linking the page in the email.

The victim used the tool as instructed, but Sussex Snow heard nothing from the SU until the 27th August – four months later.

On 27th August, the Sussex Snow committee received another sexual assault complaint from a different victim but it was committed by the same perpetrator. The Snow committee called an SU officer to discuss the complaints made by their members.

Following on from the phone call, the SU officer emailed back, saying: “We [SU] haven’t had any complaints about this [report of sexual assault] at all.” After receiving this email, Snow confirmed with the victim that they used the sexual assault report tool. The SU officer responded and stated they were going to look into why they hadn’t received any complaints since April, saying they would get back to Sussex Snow over the weekend – which they didn’t.

On 5th September, Sussex Snow received another complaint and emailed the SU for an update on the claims. The committee emailed the SU officer with a clear list of victims and the name of the perpetrator. Eventually, the SU responded, telling Sussex Snow: “In terms of how the complaints involved progress, it would probably be best if any students who submitted their complaints and haven’t heard, resubmit them on the tool.”

The SU then eventually admitted, on the 21st September via an email, that the reporting tool had fallen victim to “technical problems” and that two of the complaints submitted via the reporting tool – which had been submitted months beforehand – were affected by these problems.

Sussex Snow president Vice-President Gemma McMullen told The Sussex Tab: “The fact the victims were asked to resubmit their complaints is so unhealthy for them – it’s emotionally challenging.” The alleged victims are now in the position where they’re left with no other choice than to resubmit their complaints. Sussex Snow is upset with the time it has taken to resolve this, and that justice may not even be possible unless the alleged victim chooses to waive anonymity. President Charlotte Baker said: “In a small University, it is ridiculous that someone has to lose that anonymity in order to get justice.”

Karen Cooper, Marketing Manager at the Students Union, told The Sussex Tab: “Having spoken to my colleagues, it seems that, while it was working, our Reporting Tool was not sending notifications for a short period during the summer, resulting in a delay in allocating cases to relevant members of staff. This may have been related to the fact that we migrated to a new website and backend system over the summer, in time for the new term.”

Cooper made it clear that alerts are now working again and she apologised for any distress caused. She explained that the sexual assault claims missed were one in early June and two during late July which were then “immediately investigated and resolved on 1 September.”

On top of this, the University of Sussex is taking several months to reply to sexual assault cases. One student who submitted a complaint against her alleged abuser back in November 2019 only heard back in July this year. She then appealed the decision, also in July, and only received word from the university this week, detailing the conclusion of her complaint.

This student, who wishes to remain anonymous, said the poor response to her complaint against their alleged abuser made her suicidal and sick. “I felt depressed and anxious. I constantly cried and had panic attacks. It made it clear to me that Sussex is only interested in gas lighting students and normalising abuse and sexual assault if it means covering up their own mistakes.”

A spokesperson from Sussex stated: “The University seeks to address ​and resolve every ​report that is made to us at the earliest possible opportunity and ensure that all students involved in each case are signposted to appropriate support services to help them negotiate what is commonly a difficult experience.

“There are factors that can cause cases to last for a long period. Firstly, where the matter is subject to a police investigation, the University does not move forward with its internal discipline procedures until the police have concluded their processes. This is so the University does not interfere with the course of justice. It is very important to note that the University has, and will continue to take action to temporarily suspend and / or exclude students from campus if we feel they present a risk to  students and /or the University community, depending on the case that is under investigation with the Police and / or the reported allegations that we receive through the University’s disciplinary reporting route.

“Secondly, individuals involved in student discipline cases can sometimes be vulnerable and, in such instances, the University has a duty of care to ensure that appropriate safeguarding​ measures are in place for all involved. Over the time period in question, it is also the case that student discipline processes have taken longer than usual owing to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. We regret to hear that the students who submitted discipline reports in the two cases you mention are dissatisfied with their experience of the University’s student discipline process. We would urge them to contact the student discipline team to discuss further any concerns that they have.”

Take The Sussex Tab’s sexual assault survey here to submit your experience of sexual assault at Sussex University.