University of Warwick commits to transparency and better victim communication after “failings” in group chat handling
The University of Warwick has announced a new “five-point action plan” that commits to greater transparency, better victim communication and quarterly public updates on progress, as Dr Sharon Persaud concludes her “thorough” external disciplinary review.
This action plan will include a revised set of principles and values that reassert the University’s commitment to “openness”, and changes to its disciplinary and appeals processes.
Dr Persaud was tasked with reviewing the University’s disciplinary system, along with the entirety of the group chat handling, from the receipt of the original complaint until the present day, in order to advise on what lessons could be learnt by the University for the future.
The review commenced in February and was announced following intense public and media scrutiny of Warwick’s handling of the group chat scandal. The announcement arrived on the same day as student and staff protests against the handling of the case took place.
The key findings of the report include an increased emphasis on transparency on behalf of the University towards its victims and respondents, “informed by victim / witness care and any other relevant principles”.
This follows widespread scrutiny over an apparent “lack of transparency” on behalf of the University after it was revealed that two of the group chat students originally suspended for 10 years each would be returning to Warwick the following year.
Dr Persaud concluded that this commitment to transparency should include “regular updates; through a single point of contact where that is appropriate, and when support is available”.
The University has also promised to ensure that cases of sexual misconduct and other serious cases are to be investigated only by investigators with specialist skills.
Alongside better qualified investigators, the third point of its action plan includes provision of “training and support to all those involved undertaking these complex and sensitive processes”, such as ‘face to face’ training and trauma-informed training by sector experts.
Concerns were expressed over the qualification of investigating officers by those involved in the group chat scandal, and other staff and students who have had experience with the disciplinary process.
One member of staff communicated this concern to the complainant in this year’s Varsity story, where the University allowed a male student to compete in the annual sporting event after charges of sexual misconduct were proven against him.
The University has also promised to ensure that cases of sexual misconduct and other serious cases are to be investigated only by investigators with specialist skills
This email from a member of university staff read: “University staff who would normally act as Investigating Officers (IOs), do not have the necessary experience to undertake these particular investigations.”
It was also revealed in Dr Persaud’s report that members of staff called to act as IOs had suggested further training would be highly beneficial. Dr Persaud expressed: “They were all fitting in challenging investigations around their main employment; one IO spoke about dealing with a suicidal student; another of investigating a highly sensitive allegation of anti-semitism.”
With reference to the recommendations made regarding the Investigating Officer, vice-chancellor Professor Stuart Croft told The Boar that while there were “conflicts of interest in the past” and the University “understands now” what measures should be taken.
He added that “nobody in communications will be appointed” to handle similar cases “anymore”.
As part of improved communications with complainants and respondents, Dr Persaud has further recommended that: “When fixing key dates, consideration must be given to important examination dates, or other significant stressors, and to the support that is available for the student. This may involve, for example, moving interviews or canvassing hearing dates in advance.”
The Boar asked one of the original female complainants what she thought of the changes proposed in the report, specifically in relation to how she had suffered due to a lack of communication on the University’s part. She told The Boar:
“This review is a long time coming, and it is a huge relief for us to see some recognition of some of the failings which occurred in our case, as well as the failings of the disciplinary process more broadly. I hope the university recognise that this is not the end of this story, but that this review is a pivotal moment which begins the process of healing and necessary reform.
“We must all now engage with the university as they implement these recommendations, and hold them to account moving forward to ensure that the events of this year are not forgotten, and that the changes we have been promised are implemented.
“I welcome the call for all investigating officers to be specially trained, as many of the central challenges in our case can be traced back to actions taken by the investigating officer, who was clearly inadequately trained in cases of such a sensitive nature.”
“This is a crucial point in the report, and it is my hope that it provides the university the opportunity to implement training which should have always been in place.”
We must all now engage with the university as they implement these recommendations, and hold them to account moving forward to ensure that the events of this year are not forgotten, and that the changes we have been promised are implemented
– Dr Sharon Persaud
Reviewing the handling of the group chat specifically, Persaud expressed that “it is clear from this narrative that the overwhelming view was that the University appeal process had let down the victims – both the direct complainants and the other young women affected – because of the reduction in penalty per se.”
With regards to the specific case, she concluded that to the external eye there were other very problematic features connected to processes and procedures, and the obvious lack of trust in them.
These included concerns as to how this sequence of events could arise from a case in which the misconduct was “clear and admitted”, the gulf between the decisions of the original panel and the appeal panel and the difficulty in understanding – and the University’s difficulty in communicating – the rationale of either decision, contributing to the widespread view that the appeal decision was “wholly illegitimate”.
Elaborating on dissatisfaction surrounding the appeal that allowed the two men to return to the University and the University’s communication thereafter, Dr Persaud states: “From many, the sense that, throughout, the University had been more concerned with its own reputational interests than in a fair or just assessment of the case [became apparent]. I should say that this view was not uncommon amongst the wider groups of people I interviewed.
“Connectedly, it also appeared to me that – perhaps unsurprisingly – there was no common understanding of what the disciplinary process was for, what its philosophy was, how offending conduct was or should be weighed against mitigating features; where this case should have fallen on a scale of seriousness, in comparison to other breaches, and what factors were relevant to setting a sanction.”
Another consideration in Dr Persaud’s report addressed the “quasi-criminal nature” of the University’s disciplinary system, stating: “In relation to major disciplinary cases, the Warwick structure is a kind of ‘hybrid’ – a disciplinary case is brought for breach of the regulations / policy, based on the civil standard of proof, but with a quasi-criminal structure in that it is brought by the University in a quasi-prosecutorial role.”
“It therefore appears that, in the context of SVM [sexual violence and misconduct], the current student disciplinary system is being stretched in two directions, neither of which it was designed for. It is having to deal with conduct which might, in the criminal context, be in the Crown Court; it is also having to deal with a wide range of allegations of unacceptable but much less serious behaviour. It is, perhaps, an additional complication that both are presently encompassed within the term ‘sexual misconduct.’”
Finally, Persaud’s report reflected on the “the widespread acknowledgement that the ‘chat’ “could have happened anywhere” – ie that a parallel and deeply disturbing online world is now a form of social norm”.
This will involve an “overhaul” of Warwick’s disciplinary processes, “how we manage our work, and how we communicate with all those concerned in cases such as these”
Thus, the lawyer recommended further education for Warwick and its students about the online world after “some contributors talked about the general role of toxic ‘group chats’ in legitimising sexual violence and misconduct”.
Other action recommended to the University includes creating guidance to confirm the general principles, procedures and ordinances of the disciplinary policy, to embed a “clear, simple code of conduct into the student contract so that breach and consequences are obvious” and improving their ability to “convey and balance complex messages – which may be in tension with each other – when facts cannot be put in the public domain”.
To implement these changes, the University’s Registrar Rachel Sandby-Thomas will be leading a working group, whose job it will be to “map out the workstreams and appropriate timescales to co-ordinate these areas” and identify resources and timelines in detail.
This will involve an “overhaul” of Warwick’s disciplinary processes, “how we manage our work, and how we communicate with all those concerned in cases such as these”.
Warwick has promised that this overhaul will be completely in the space of 18 months, and that they will provide quarterly updates on progress.
“The overall aim is to make the regulations simpler, coherent, and more streamlined. I understand that one effect may be to categorise more cases as minor breaches under regulation 23, with fewer cases going to major disciplinary panels. (I was told, for example, that a second ‘breach’ for possession of cannabis would be routinely dealt with by a larger fine in the residential setting, but under regulation 23, would have to go to a major disciplinary panel.)”
One of Persaud’s recommendations also includes “to consider increasing the range of resolutions and sanctions available across all complaints — including, where appropriate, skilled mediation and restorative justice alternatives”.
Vice-chancellor Stuart Croft’s response to the disciplinary review findings begins: “We accept the findings of Dr Persaud’s review and welcome its recommendations. We acknowledge that we made some mistakes and we apologise for this, including how we communicated with the victims.
“Sexual misconduct or harassment of any kind is completely unacceptable and we are committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the Warwick community. We are determined that, by continuing to work together with our students, staff and wider Warwick community, we will build on the steps we have already taken, deliver our action plan and report back regularly on our progress.”
He told The Boar: “I want to take a moment and say that I have apologised and will continue to apologise to the victims and the wider community.
I want to take a moment and say that I have apologised and will continue to apologise to the victims and the wider community
– Stuart Croft
“We do get some things wrong – the process and how we handled the case for the victims was not right. We need to get our communication right, and we will be much more professional in how the new procedures operate.”
He added that he “personally wrote an apology” to the victims of the group chat case.
Following Stuart Croft’s statement, Warwick has confirmed that it has already taken action following the group chat incident, including “increased, and increasing” investment in welfare services, as well as a ‘bystander training programme’ which will be piloted during the 2019 Welcome Week. According to the University, this will aim to “empower students if they are facing incidences of sexual harassment or violence”.
The University has also already set up two specialist external investigators to support with disciplinary cases, one of which was revealed to be working in the system as part of the Varsity-related story mentioned above. Posts have also now been created for a permanent Secretary and two Discipline advisors.
As part of their “Vision and Action plan”, the University stated: “It is clear from Dr Persaud’s report that we made some mistakes and we apologise for this – in particular, in how we communicated with the victims. Sexual misconduct or harassment of any kind is completely unacceptable and we are committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the Warwick community.”
Their statement on the plan concluded: “In 18 months’ time, we will have achieved our vision of a positive Warwick community.”
Warwick Students’ Union (SU) said in a statement following the publication of the review: “Our initial reaction is that the investigation has been thorough, and followed a wide consultative process which openly engaged with students and staff alike.
“We firmly agree with the recommendations, particularly the review’s emphasis on the University putting “specialist policies and procedures in place for investigating sexual violence and misconduct.”
Warwick SU added that the review is “very much the start of a process” and they “will hold the University to account on the implementation of these recommendations”, as well as “ensuring that, where necessary, the University goes beyond what has been proposed”.
Students were given their say on how the University could improve its disciplinary processes in April through two interactive portals. One allowed students to share their personal experiences with the processes, while the other asked students what behaviours and values they believe should be deemed desirable or unacceptable.
This story will be updated as it progresses.