TW: This article discusses topics of sexual assault.
People who experience sexual assault are often aware of how their assault will impact them for years, or even decades, after. But Alex* didn’t expect their fight for disciplinary action against their assailant to follow them into their graduate life, over eighteen months after going to both Warwick’s Student Union and the university itself for support.
Sexual harassment and assault have been the central focus of ongoing conversations at Warwick since the Group Chat scandal in 2018, in which sexist, racist, and misogynistic messages between Warwick students brought to light an astonishing prevalence of rape culture on campus at the University. The University’s failures, along with the inadequacy of university policy in supporting victims and punishing perpetrators, has been the most prominent topic of protests and student media coverage for the past 12 months.
With much of the criticisms aimed directly at the University, Warwick Student’s Union has come to be viewed as an alternative – and perhaps perhaps more reliable – place to seek support. Campaigns such as ‘#WeGetConsent’ and the use of ‘Ask Angela’ in SU outlets suggest that the union is more responsive to the needs of the student body.
It’s been a millstone around my neck for over a year now
But for Alex, their experience couldn’t be more different. “The SU are asleep at the wheel on a serious case of sexual and online abuse”, they told The Boar, “in effect letting the guilty party escape with no practical penalty or impediment.” Alex believes that the bureaucratic delay at the SU has hindered them receiving any justice as a graduate.
“It’s been a millstone around my neck for over a year now,” they said. “It feels like the uni, SU, and Report & Support are all together on this. They all know how bad these cases are, they know they’ve betrayed the students in their care, but don’t want to do anything about sexual assault at Warwick. They’d much rather bury the stories, as a lot of victims probably wouldn’t keep fighting for this long. It’s just shameful.”
Like 90% of rape cases, Alex knew their assailant prior to their assault. It began in early 2020, when Alex and their assailant, who were in the same academic and social circles, went out for drinks. “We slept together, and although I didn’t especially want to, I didn’t outright say ‘no’, and I left the next morning.” Alex said. “I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed it, and I didn’t want to see them again at that moment, so didn’t contact them directly. They didn’t contact me either.”
After feeling pressured by a tweet from their assailant, the students agreed to meet again the following week. Although the sexual encounter between them was initially consensual, Alex stated they soon became uncomfortable.
“To enhance the experience”, the assailant suggested having unprotected sex against Alex’s will: “I didn’t consent, and I said ‘no’, but they proceeded. It was only through feigning a lot of pain that I was able to stop them in the act. After the whole experience was over, they were incredibly reluctant to let me leave, guilt-tripping me into staying for a long time, and I didn’t leave for over an hour.”
Following their assault, Alex rejected further meetings with their assailant, which led to abusive messages from the alleged perpetrator. The assailant assaulted Alex again the following week at a social night on campus they had attended separately.
After Alex rejected meeting the perpetrator again, another series of attacking messages from the assailant occurred. “What followed was a continual barrage of abusive messages, directly attacking my character, accusing me of lying, deliberately trying to hurt them.” This escalated to the assailant blocking Alex on all social media while spreading rumours about their behaviour.
I’d seen the figures, I’d read how bad it was at Warwick specifically. I never thought it would happen to me.
Reporting to Warwick’s SU
Alex described feeling “fucking awful” after their physical assault. “It’s the cliché: I’d seen the figures, I’d read how bad it was at Warwick specifically. I never thought it would happen to me. Until the abuse went more public, I think I was in some kind of denial that it had happened.”
The online sexual abuse also left them “afraid to post anything, reach out for help about it – for fear of it getting worse. I didn’t even remind them of the rape in private messages. Literally all I was doing was saying ‘I do not want to have sex with you again’, and it all started.”
This behaviour left Alex fearful for their safety, resulting in them withdrawing from academic sessions and too fearful to attend society events.
As a result, Alex decided to report the situation to Warwick’s Student Union, on the basis that the assailant’s behaviour violated the society’s and SU constitutions. They emailed the then incumbent SU Welfare Officer, Tiana Holgate.
“I asked her if she’d received my email, which she had, but she’d been very busy with an email backlog, and couldn’t get to it. I understood, of course, but I stressed the timed element of my case.”
The student described the meeting [with SU staff] as ‘confrontational and uncomfortable from the start’
On having an in-person meeting with Holgate, Alex outlined that they wanted the SU to do three things: to remove membership from the alleged assailant; prevent them from re-joining the society in Term 3; and then bar the individual from an upcoming society event which both individuals were due to attend.
“Tiana was confident that these could be achieved, and when I said that I would want to take this further, into more official university complaints grounds, she understood.” After the initial meeting, Alex filled out the official SU complaint form.
“When I wrote the form, I was limited to just 500 words to describe what had happened. I had to heavily cut what was ‘officially’ reported: the rape; the personal desire to get the university and other parties involved, if necessary; and more had to be cut. However, I repeated these omissions in both of my face-to-face consultations, so I hoped that at least one of Tiana, Chloe and Faye could have noted it for the record.”
After the complaint remained unresolved four days prior to the society event, the student met with the SU Vice President Chloe Batten, SU complaints staffer Faye Shorter, and Holgate. The student described the meeting as “confrontational and uncomfortable from the start”, and that the three were “more interrogative than questioning.”
[The SU recommended] a ‘Stage One resolution’ – the accused had to take down any social media posts and the two were not to have any contact.
In the end, the three desires of the student were unmet as the SU required the accused to be contacted, comply with, and attend a complaint’s panel – Alex’s assailant refused to do so. The SU also stated they did not have the power to remove the perpetrator from attending the event. As a result, Alex went to the society event “pretty damn frightened and ill.” In the end, their assailant did not attend.
During the 2020 Easter Holidays, and with the development of the Covid-19 pandemic and the national lockdown, Batten emailed the student on 26 March. The email stated that the SU had closed, and they were recommending a “Stage One resolution” – the accused had to take down any social media posts and the two were not to have any contact. Both students agreed to the conditions.
The victim felt that their alleged assailant had not been punished by procedure, with the three “red lines” only met due to the pandemic. Expressing the desire for further action beyond the SU to occur, Alex wrote to Batten that “at every stage of consultation with the SU, it was made clear to me that this is a persistent and serious case of online abuse, and the likelihood was that it would result in disciplinary action from outside the SU.”
Batten replied: “As there was no request for external disciplinary action from yourself in the original complaint submitted, nor during the process, we are unable to comment on what such action would look like or what form it would take. For disciplinary action to take place, the complaint must be escalated to Stage 3, after which there would be referral to the University Disciplinary Process.”
Usually, an institution will send you resources as well – advice pages, phone numbers, sexual violence contacts. The SU didn’t send me anything like that.
In their testimony to Report and Support, Alex wrote: “Above all of [Warwick SU’s] failures, this hiding behind the paper trail (or lack thereof, in this case) is absolutely unforgivable, and I feel as though my complaint may have been brushed aside since, as someone soon to finish their degree, it didn’t ‘matter’ as much.”
“[The SU] never told me that I’d have to go to the University myself, and they even made it sound like they could, as I requested that they did. Usually, an institution will send you resources as well – advice pages, phone numbers, sexual violence contacts. The SU didn’t send me anything like that. It was like [they were saying] ‘yeah, we told you we could do something, but we chose not to because of Covid, so yeah: you’re on your own. We don’t care about you.’”
As a result, both students graduated in the class of 2020.
Reporting an assault as a Warwick graduate
Research by Revolt Sexual Assault and the Student Room found that, despite 62% of students in higher education experiencing sexual assault, only 6% reported this to their institution. Alex, now an alumni, is in a minority of students who report their assault. However, they remain in the 98% majority of those unsatisfied with the resolution they received.
Due to an extensive final term workload and starting a graduate job, Alex did not report the assault and abuse directly to the University until January 2021; this was done through Warwick’s Report and Support portal. The system allows students to report any form of harassment or assault to the University, with the goal of supporting victims and the potential for disciplinary or legal action against assailants if desired.
It’s been impossible to go for jobs – or start anything else personal – when I’m still having to pursue this every week. I actually had to quit my job earlier this year, just to have the time to fight this
As a result of neither party being enrolled at Warwick, the University told Alex that as an institution they were unable to act against the alleged assailant. Furthermore, due to Alex no longer being enrolled at Warwick, they were only entitled to two sessions of support from University services after reporting the incident.
Communication with the SU, along with Alex experiencing continued online abuse, led to them to go to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA). The independent body works to review student complaints against their higher education institutions.
However, Alex’s complaint was denied and the subsequent appeal of this decision was similarly rejected. The OIA also stated that due to the student not completing a complaints process with the university, they were unable to help. “Our remit does not normally extend to considering complaints about Students’ Unions (SU) or other student representative bodies,”the OIA explained in a letter to Alex as to why their complaint was rejected.
“I’m still scared of posting on social media, as I know my abuser is stalking me,” Alex admitted. “It’s been impossible to go for jobs – or start anything else personal – when I’m still having to pursue this every week. I actually had to quit my job earlier this year, just to have the time to fight this, as Warwick weren’t prepared to work around my schedule.”
“The SU didn’t tell me about Report and Support, so I didn’t learn about them until it was too late. The Uni won’t apply sanctions to my rapist post-graduation, even though the evidence is so clear and we haven’t actually had our graduations yet [due to Covid]. And then there’s the ‘experts’ from Report and Support, saying that Warwick can’t do anything but the OIA can, and two weeks later, I find it’s the other way around.”
“They say that they’re committed to ‘promoting the University’s Report and Support service’. That’s just a flat out lie,” concluded Alex. “Look at my case! They say that they’re lobbying for harsher penalties for sexual crimes, but three sabbatical officers oversaw my complaint and all of them delayed to the point of danger, only to do nothing.”
Alex’s online abuse and their fight for their desired resolution both continue. Along with an alleged assailant able to continue working at an SU outlet, tackling sexual assault at Warwick appear to lay with more than just the University. Students have protested extensively against the University, but will recent revelations drive them to gather on the piazza once more to demand change at the SU’s front door?
Both prior to and since these conversations, we have acted on feedback from the student, and will continue to develop and reform our complaints procedure to ensure it is fit-for-purpose.
– Luke Mepham, SU President 2020/21
In response to The Boar, the 2020/21 SU President Luke Mepham commented: “We aim to deal with all complaints made by students in a timely and appropriate manner, whilst supporting all students involved in the process throughout. I have worked with the student mentioned throughout this year and have taken on board their feedback on their experience of using the SU’s complaints process.”
Mepham concluded: “Throughout conversations with this student, it has become clear to me that their time-sensitive complaint was not dealt with in a timely manner, and was therefore not adequately dealt with to the standard we would expect. Both prior to and since these conversations, we have acted on feedback from the student, and will continue to develop and reform our complaints procedure to ensure it is fit-for-purpose.”
We strongly encourage any current student who has experienced sexual misconduct to contact Report and Support so that we can take action and support them.
– The University of Warwick
The University of Warwick issued the following statement: “We investigate all cases of sexual misconduct where the person accused is a student at Warwick. If they are no longer a student, then we would encourage the survivor to contact the appropriate authorities. While we seek to help recent graduates in finding external support once they have graduated, our services are focused on, and designed to support, those currently enrolled at the University.
“We strongly encourage any current student who has experienced sexual misconduct to contact Report and Support so that we can take action and support them. There is no limit on the support available from Report and Support.”
Finishing their statement, the University said: “Current students can be permanently excluded for misconduct before they complete their studies, and then they will not qualify for an award of a degree. Following graduation, universities can only withdraw academic qualifications for reasons of academic misconduct.”
*Not the student’s real name
If you have been affected by matters similar to those alleged in this article, there are several places you can turn to for support. Warwick Wellbeing Support Services are available through the Wellbeing Portal, online, or over the phone. Warwick’s Report and Support services can be used to report incidences of sexual misconduct and other cases of discrimination, harassment or assault. NHS Coventry and Warwickshire Partnership Trust offer online or over the phone urgent support for anyone suffering from mental health issues. More information can be found on their website.
Coventry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre (CRASAC) can be contacted via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or via their helpline (024 7627 7777) for those seeking urgent advice or support. Blue Sky Centre Coventry offers a 24/7 helpline (0800 970 0370) and more information can be found on their website. Charities such as MIND also have information, guidance and support available online for national support services.