Call to overhaul harassment complaints after ‘Degrees of Abuse’

Handling multiple complaints against same alleged perpetrator separately often means pattern of behaviour is harder to spot, academics say

November 10, 2021
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More than 100 academics and campaigners have signed an open letter calling for universities to overhaul the way they handle multiple sexual harassment complaints against the same perpetrator.

The letter, written by The 1752 Group, which campaigns against sexual misconduct in higher education, comes in the wake of “devastating” investigations by Al Jazeera that alleged serial sexual harassers had gone unpunished in UK universities.

The podcast series Degrees of Abuse claimed that the universities of Glasgow and Oxford failed to properly respond to reports of sexual harassment from academic staff and students, and explored how sexual misconduct by university staff and students has affected the lives of women in academia.

The letter, signed by more than 100 academics, as well as student survivors of sexual misconduct, says that staff, students and the public were “alarmed and distressed” by the findings and “harrowing testimony” detailed in the Al Jazeera coverage.

One of the most urgent issues that the series highlights is universities’ “difficulties in handling multiple reports about the same student or staff member”, they write.

Current practice and guidance mean that when several people report the same student or staff member for sexual misconduct, they are usually dealt with separately and this means that the pattern of behaviour is more difficult to spot.

They point to a 2018 report by The 1752 Group that warned university staff accused of sexual misconduct have often already committed sexual offences but are left free to target other victims because of ineffective complaints processes that can drag on for several years.

The signatories urge sector organisations including Universities UK, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, Universities HR and AMOSSHE, which represents student services leaders, to adopt new guidance for handling cases where there are multiple complainants.

“This should cover cases where there are two or more individual reports against the same person, or where several students and/or staff report as a group,” they write. “Existing guidance is insufficient to support professional services staff in HEIs to adequately do this.”

The letter adds that new OIA guidance, published in April 2021, would not be appropriate for sexual harassment cases.

Pressure had already been growing on universities to tackle sexual harassment, after thousands of allegations of misconduct and abuse were published on the Everyone’s Invited website earlier this year.

There needs to be more “joined-up thinking” across universities’ HR and student services departments, the letter says. “We know that many dedicated professionals within HEIs are also struggling with the existing lack of clear guidance in this area,” they say, acknowledging the difficulty that can come with cases that also involve the police.

Ultimately, the goal must be “to create a higher education sector where the kinds of devastating accounts that were heard in Degrees of Abuse can no longer occur”, they say.

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