Image: Wikimedia Commons/Rwendland

Sexual assault at Warwick: has enough changed since 2018’s Group Chat scandal?

Trigger Warning: this article discusses rape and sexual assault.

It’s a chilly grey Sunday afternoon in late November, and small groups are beginning to gather on the Warwick University piazza. They huddle in clusters, wearing masks and holding hand-made cardboard signs: ‘Boys will be held accountable for their actions’, one reads; ‘Alcohol is not an excuse’, declares another. 10 or 20 minutes go by and the smaller groups increase into a crowd. Someone with a megaphone patrols to make sure demonstrators are social-distancing. 

“Not enough measures are being taken,” Becky Hipson, a Film and Literature Warwick undergraduate tells me. “Not enough preventative measures, not enough to penalise those responsible, and not enough for victims to come forward and feel assured that their concerns are being properly met.” She and hundreds of others are protesting Warwick University and Warwick Student Union’s handling of sexual assault cases on campus, a situation that has snowballed since a petition was made in November 2020 calling for the university to take better action against sexual assault cases.

It’s been over two years since a crowd this size gathered on the piazza. In 2018, when many prospective students were visiting for their open days, pupils and staff marched in protest of the university’s handling of the ‘Rape Chat’ scandal – the now infamous incident exposing misognystic and rascist messages made in a private online chat between male Warwick students. The ‘Reclaim Our University’ march marched against the university’s handling of the case – namely reducing two perpetrator’s 10-year sentences down to one year, a fact not communicated to the victims.

But as the recent march and news coverage has proved, whatever little change has occurred has not been enough

There has been some change since then: an independent external review of student disciplinary and appeals processes was conducted, fines given to the group chat perpetrators were “reinvested into the university to improve student experience and facilities” and Warwick accepted a five-point action plan to report publicly on its progress. 

But as the recent march and news coverage has proved, whatever little change has occurred has not been enough. An open letter to Warwick’s vice chancellor Stuart Croft was published by The Boar, demanding a zero-tolerance stance against sexual violence at the university. The Times reported a similar incident of a student accusing the vice chancellor of ‘presiding over a “toxic” rape culture’. 

‘How many times do we have to do this’, one of the demonstrator’s cardboard signs reads, fluttering in the wind. At a university that promised safety, respect and empowerment for its students, that question remains unanswered.

“I think a lot of people thought it would be safer, given Covid, but that’s not the case. Flat parties are still going on throughout the UK and that’s to be expected, realistically,” Laila Ahmed told me, a first-year Classics student at the University of Warwick and the creator of the petition.

Laila created the petition late one night in November 2020, only two months after joining the university herself as an undergraduate.

“I had been hanging out with these two guys during freshers and one of them was joking about how a friend of his had taken off a condom during sex – they didn’t see anything wrong with that.”

‘Report and Support’ explain your options, they are really good. The main problem is that the university didn’t advertise it whatsoever. No one knew about it at all

– Laila Ahmed, petition creator

Her own experience with unwanted touching led her to contact Warwick Wellbeing, who then directed her to ‘Report and Support’ – an online tool set up by Warwick after the Group Chat scandal, and used by many other universities for students to anonymously report harassment and get in touch with an advisor. 

“I think a lot of girls get scared when you say you should report a sexual assault, because it seems like there will be an investigation. ‘Report and Support’ explain your options, they are really good. The main problem is that the university didn’t advertise it whatsoever. No one knew about it at all.”  

Over half of the 80 participants (53.8%) were unaware of the university’s resources surrounding consent and sexual awareness

In a survey conducted by The Boar Features with students at the University of Warwick, over half of the 80 participants (53.8%) were unaware of the university’s resources surrounding consent and sexual awareness. This is particularly grievous given the Coronavirus pandemic, which has led many students to be isolated in their university accommodation – this is on top of the already-existing issues that most experience being away from home for the first time. 75% of respondants did not know the repercussions for students who commit acts of sexual assault.

I saw 16-20 cases of both girls and boys saying they had been assaulted and they had no idea. It’s so heartbreaking to know it is still such an issue

– Laila Ahmed

“There were multiple girls who came up to me after the protest and said ‘Thank you, I’m going to report my assault’,” Laila continued. “Even looking at WarwickConfessions [The University of Warwick’s confession Instagram page], I saw 16-20 cases of both girls and boys saying they had been assaulted and they had no idea. It’s so heartbreaking to know it is still such an issue.”

40% of respondants to the survey admitted to experiencing sexual assault at Warwick, while an additional 30% knew someone who had. When asking those who chose not to tell the university why, the options varied:

I was confused. As a man, I felt like it wasn’t possible and I must have missed something

– Anonymous

“Because it happens so often and I know nothing is going to be done about it so I don’t see the point in it. In a way I’ve just passively accepted it as being part of a woman’s life,” one said.

“I was confused. As a man, I felt like it wasn’t possible and I must have missed something,” revealed another.

Emma*, an undergraduate student studying at the University of Warwick, was one of the many students who reached out to the university’s services after experiencing sexual assault in March last year. Initially, she found the support provided by the university helpful:

However, after months of investigation proceedings, Emma says an independent committee decided that she did not have enough evidence to convict her assaulter

“I went to speak to someone after reporting it through Report and Support and they were really kind and understanding. They seemed like they were on my side.”

However, after months of investigation proceedings, Emma says an independent committee decided that she did not have enough evidence to convict her assaulter.

She alleges that “they took messages from when we’d broken up in which I’d sounded very angry, and because of that it casted sufficient doubt on my part and implied that I was basically lying, and the incident didn’t really happen.” 

“I gave so much evidence of things that had happened before, people who have backed me up. All it took was for him to say “No, she’s lying” and then show one message where my tone was angry, and that was enough to close the case. Even after that I appealed and two months later that was rejected, and it was the same, robotic “Not enough evidence”. I had no idea what I had to give them.”

“It just made me feel like everything I’ve done wasn’t enough and that everything I was saying was worthless. I might as well have not bothered”.

Emma alleges that she provided personal messages between her and her assaulter as evidence, and the investigating officers also spoke to friends and flatmates of both involved without Emma’s permission – “That felt like a complete breach of confidentiality”. 

The student that assaulted Emma is still allowed on campus. She signed an open letter to the university after the march in November and followed up with an email about her experience in December, but she says the university is yet to reply. 

If other people had really bad experiences like this, I’d warn them about how unhelpful the university is and just how much it might impact their mental wellbeing even more if they report it, because it’s horrible

– Emma*

“If anything ever happened to me in the future, I would not tell the university. I don’t trust them at all. If other people had really bad experiences like this, I’d warn them about how unhelpful the university is and just how much it might impact their mental wellbeing even more if they report it, because it’s horrible.

“Because of the Rape Chat scandal and how badly the university handled it I thought that they wouldn’t make the same mistakes in the future.”

Emma’s situation is suggestive of a wider feeling of distrust from Warwick students towards the university – after the Group Chat scandal in 2018, it seemed like the natural time to improve what appeared to many to be a failing system. However, over two years later, students are still going unheard.

A lot of people at Warwick are vocally against sexual assault but they won’t do anything about it when they see it

– Tasha Hardaker, Vice President of It Happens Here Warwick

Some have queried the campaign, asking what exactly the university – rather than the police, for instance – can do to tackle sexual assault: it’s a sad, yet inevitable, part of life, that goes on at many other universities, is the general consensus. However, it’s this lack of action from both staff and students that leads to situations like Warwick’s going unresolved, Tasha Hardaker, the Vice-President of It Happens Here Warwick, believes. 

“A lot of people at Warwick are vocally against sexual assault but they won’t do anything about it when they see it,”   Tasha continued. “Or they’ll ask their friends what they were wearing or how much they were drinking when they were assaulted. If you’re vocally supporting a movement you need to actively support a movement too. Action is what staff and students are severely lacking at Warwick.”

It Happens Here Warwick is a student-run society that provides support to sexual assault survivors and fights for safety on campus, offering more informal peer support in addition to those Tash calls “adult-adults”.

However, she recognises that institutional change is the biggest barrier to a safer and more educated campus culture.

“It’s definitely a top down thing,” she says. “You see students wanting to do something about it, you see departments wanting to do something about it. But if there isn’t a support structure which goes up the university it’s impossible to make any changes.”

[Tasha Hardaker] suggested running them [consent workshops] departmentally and in-person, rather than the online Warwick Values Moodle course currently in place – an indirect and disengaging 10 minute programme based around reflection

She wants Warwick to implement in-person consent workshops and active bystander workshops – “You would be surprised at how many people who don’t actually know what consent is.” 

She suggested running them departmentally and in-person, rather than the online Warwick Values Moodle course currently in place – an indirect and disengaging 10 minute programme based around reflection.

“Warwick University doesn’t want to talk about sexual assault and consent because they’ve been dragged through the mud constantly. However, the press is only dragging them because they’re not doing anything about it.”

Laila also offered some potential resources Warwick could implement, such as fully implementing the Ask for Angela scheme – a code word that can be used to discreetly signal to others you’re in need of help -, reword Report and Support to make it appear less intimidating and convoluted and bring in harder sanctions for students that break the code of conduct.

While some may point to Warwick’s ongoing sexual assault crisis as endemic of a larger issue in society – rape culture – it’s vital that we hold the university to account, especially an institution that has such a long history of failing the people it promised to protect. 

The University is committed to working with our community to improve services, including Report and Support

– University of Warwick representative

Despite appearances, there is little evidence of effective systematic change to Warwick’s approach to student sexual assault, instead running the risk of awareness campaigns simply becoming performative attempts to protect their reputation. Yet again, it’s been left to students to push for the change they wish to see in the university, a running theme for an institution that consistently falls short on delivering what the student body needs. 

A representative of the university commented:

“The University is committed to working with our community to improve services, including Report and Support. This work has recently included the establishment of the Student Advisory Group. The group, which includes representatives from the Students Union and members of other student organisations as well as university officials, meets on a monthly basis to discuss how services can be improved, communicate feedback from students directly to the university, and to agree action on how to improve services.  

“We are promoting regular weekly sessions with the student liaison officer team for staff and students to find out more about Report and Support in order to build awareness across the community for the purposes of access and signposting. We are also in discussions with the SU on how to better promote Report and Support via online services, signage and signposting.

“We urge anyone who feels that they have been a victim of sexual misconduct to seek support by contacting the Report and Support team.

“The University is expanding the Independent Sexual Assault Advisor provision available to students. Four members of staff are currently being trained and a further, permanent Independent Sexual Assault Advisor will be recruited this year.” 

A representative of CRASAC commented:

“We welcome the news that students at The University of Warwick feel empowered to take control and raise this important issue. It is vital that in order to improve outcomes for victims and survivors, that their experiences are used to shape current and future policy .  We hope that their united voice will bring about change. Reports show us that there is a high prevalence of sexual violence across all universities and what is important is that students feel supported by these institutions.

“Sexual violence is surrounded by myths and stereotypes which are embedded into much of societies views which leads to poor experiences for victims and survivors and a lack of understanding of perpetrators. CRASAC is very willing to work with the University to support them in improving in these areas.  CRASAC is here to support any victim/survivor of sexual violence and can call our helpline or visit our website for more information or support (02476 277777 – www.crasac.org.uk).”

*names have been changed

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