University Council proposes new sexual harassment and assault policy

Joanna Taylor 15 December 2016

The University Council is submitting a motion, or ‘Grace’, in conjunction with the General Board “on the consideration of student complaints of harassment and sexual misconduct” following discussion earlier this month. 

In a report, which makes recommendations to be included in the Grace, the UC and General Board proposes a model for dealing with complaints of harassment built on “similar procedures operated in universities in the USA” which have “successfully offered a means of resolving such complaints”. 

This procedure could mean that those involved in allegations of harassment or sexual misconduct, both of which are clearly defined in the report, are barred from University buildings and suspended from their studies whilst the complaint is being processed. 

Each allegation would be submitted to the Head of the Office of Student Conduct, Complaints and Appeals (OSCCA) in writing, no later than three months beyond the date of the incident. A decision would then be made as to whether the complaint be put forward to an investigator. 

If an allegation were found to be justified, the Head of OSCAA or a reviewing panel including one student would decide on the case’s resolution. 

This could entail a conduct agreement for the respondent (whom the case had been made against), a period of intermission or “behaviour awareness training or workshops”, dependent on both the complainant and respondent agreeing on the measure. If an agreement were not reached, the respondent would be referred to by the University Advocate. 

A settlement might alternatively be agreed upon between respondent and complainant “wherever appropriate”. 

This procedure would mean that when a complaint is also being investigated for police or criminal prosecution, the “University Advocate has discretion on whether and when to bring a charge”. 

Currently the University Advocate will not usually begin an internal investigation until it is made clear the complainant will not be reporting an incident to the police, or until criminal or police proceedings have concluded without a charge being made. 

The UC and General Board hope that this amendment to their current model will provide “a way of addressing a complaint by one student about another that, for whatever reason, does not become a matter for the criminal court”.

Despite this, the “potential risk of self-incrimination” during an investigation is strong enough that university procedure to deal with the fallout is considered necessary. 

In such cases, the identity of complainants will not be withheld from the person being complained about in order that they understand the case being made against them, but respondents “will be free to choose not to co-operate with the handling of the complaint going forward”. 

However, the report acknowledges that “both parties must be willing to participate in order for the procedure to work as intended” and notes that the General Board will keep explanatory notes on all procedure, including “any adverse inference” which “may be drawn from a respondent’s silence”. 

The report summary also highlights contributions to discussion made by Dame Barbara Stocking, Ms Sebatindira, Dr Wormald, and Professor Dame Athene Donald in the University’s response to cases of harassment and sexual misconduct. 

The proposals have the support of the Senior Tutors’ Committee and the Committee on Student Health and Wellbeing, and were developed in collaboration with the Colleges’ Committee. Students, officers of CUSU and the GU, the police, the University Advocate and other local agencies including Rape Crisis were also consulted. 

The Grace will pass automatically at 4pm on 23rd December unless it is withdrawn or members of Regent House call for it to go to voting.