How to take care of complainants in cases of staff student sexual misconduct

Too often the disciplinary process of staff student sexual misconduct takes precedence over offering support and redress to student complainants. Anna Bull lays out what's needed

Anna Bull is a Senior Lecturer in Education and Social Justice at the University of York and a founding member of The 1752 Group

The main reason students report staff sexual misconduct is to protect themselves and others and to be able to continue with their studies. This simple fact should be centred in any institutional response to address staff sexual misconduct in higher education.

Unfortunately the standard way sexual misconduct cases are carried out are centred on the disciplinary case against the reported staff member (or student) rather than on the academic and support needs of those reporting misconduct, who are frequently left in the dark.

This week has seen a case at the University of Kent – reported in Times Higher Education – in which students who came forward with complaints of sexual misconduct against a member of staff believe the university has not offered them sufficient support as complainants.

What is reported in the press is inevitably only one part of the story and we can’t draw conclusions about the specifics of the case itself. But it is a salutary reminder that conducting an investigation into potential misconduct following a complaint involves not only giving the accused staff member a fair process, but ensuring those making the complaint are kept informed, offered pastoral support, and especially where a complaint is partially or fully upheld, are offered the appropriate remedy. If these steps are not taken, complainants may be left feeling uninformed and unsafe – and may advise other affected students that complaining is not worth the risk.

Privacy and safety

For a student making a complaint about a staff member the stakes and sense of risk could not be higher. While a complaint is being investigated, it’s appropriate that the complainant(s) are informed of the measures that are being taken to secure their safety – and that the measures themselves are commensurate with the severity of the accusation and do not, for example, involve putting others at risk.

The new Worker Protection Act puts a duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment from occurring. If a university has formal knowledge that an individual has sexually harassed multiple students and staff, failing to prevent them from harassing others will be in breach of this act.

There is an ongoing battle between the responding party’s right to privacy and the reporting party’s right to safety and to know what actions have been taken following their complaints. Previously, standard practice was that reporting parties would be given no information at all about the disciplinary case against the responding party. The 1752 Group has been pushing back against this consensus. It is now accepted that reporting parties should be told of any measures that affect their safety. However, privacy concerns still tend to override any rights of the reporting party in relation to sharing disciplinary sanctions.

And yet, as Eversheds Sutherland – a highly respected law firm in the HE space – has argued, potentially relevant lawful grounds for sharing this information (although this would need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis) may be that it is:

in the legitimate interests of the reporting student – for example, to understand the conclusions reached by the higher education provider on their report or complaint or in the interest of safeguarding their health, safety or wellbeing; and/or in the legitimate interests of the higher education provider – in terms of dealing transparently with reports or complaints of this nature and/or ensuring that its systems and processes for managing and regulating this area are robust, effective and fit for purpose.

Knowing what happened as a result of your complaint is a crucial principle of procedural justice – the idea that people feel that their case has been heard fairly, regardless of the outcome. This guidance suggests sharing much more information with reporting parties is possible.

Remedy and compensation

Students that complain may be offered a sum of money as compensation as part of the outcome of an investigation. It’s worth universities being aware of the alternatives when weighing up what is a reasonable offer: if students go to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (requiring a further lengthy process), the highest level of remedy they can access is £5000 each. If students are able to take out a successful legal case (for which they would have up-front legal costs), they could be awarded a large five-figure sum.

While reporting students’ motivation in reporting is not primarily a financial remedy – rather, safety for themselves and others, financial remedy may be appropriate if they have been unable to access teaching or supervision and/or have suffered distress due to the harassment, the institutional response, or both – which is often the case.

But remedy needs to be interpreted much more widely than just money. The Office for the Independent Adjudicator’s most recent Good Practice Framework notes that in such cases:

the student who made the complaint should receive a resolution to that complaint. It is good practice to consider including at least the following information: If the behaviour is found to have had an adverse impact on the reporting student, a remedy for that impact.

The impacts of staff sexual misconduct can include loss of teaching; having to change discipline or subdiscipline, losing months – or years – of work; and losing confidence in your academic work, among other academic impacts. On top of this, personal impacts can include emotional, financial, and mental/physical health consequences such as post-traumatic stress, insomnia, and having to pay for counselling and fees/living costs for an extra year of studying.

These are the adverse impacts that remedies should address. They should include financial, academic, and pastoral remedies. They should also involve community remedies whereby steps are taken to rebuild trust and raise awareness of this issue within a department or research group affected by sexual harassment.

A sackable offence?

If a student’s complaint of sexual misconduct is upheld, there is a strong case to dismiss the member of staff on the grounds of gross misconduct. My research project Higher Education After #MeToo found that even after upheld findings of sexual harassment, staff were not necessarily losing their jobs. In this area, universities can learn from the experience of the Confederation of British Industries (CBI), which has been struggling to recover after accounts of mishandling of sexual misconduct. Warnings to other organisations were given by the ex-president, reflecting on what went wrong:

We didn’t put in place sufficient preventative measures to protect our people from those seeking to cause harm, and we didn’t react properly when issues arose as a result. […] And we tried to find resolution in sexual harassment cases when we should have removed those offenders from our business. In retrospect, this last point was our most grievous error, which led to a reluctance among women to formalise complaints.

Leaving aside the “bad apple” metaphor of removing offenders, which assumes that sexual harassment occurs in a vacuum rather than being enabled by wider cultures and norms, the CBI’s lesson is that they wish they had taken more robust action in relation to upheld cases. In staff-student cases in higher education, there is an even stronger rationale for such action , as academic staff are in a position of trust and authority. This should be considered as an aggravating factor when deciding on an appropriate sanction.

Despite this, for many students who are targeted for sexual harassment by staff, the responding party losing their job is not necessarily the outcome they want. But – to return to the point where this article began – they usually report in order to make sure that others are not targeted in the same way, and to be assured of their own safety while they finish their studies.  As such, if a staff member is unable to carry out a core part of their role – teaching and supervising students – due to safety concerns, then dismissal may be the only option. However, disciplinary panels made up of colleagues and peers of the responding staff member may be reluctant to impose such a sanction, leaving the institution in a difficult position, such as having to move the staff member into a non-student facing role, leaving their colleagues to pick up the rest of their work.

These thorny questions suggest that universities would do well to heed the lessons from the CBI and take the opportunity to review their complaints and disciplinary processes for staff-student sexual harassment before they are faced with a public scandal. This work is complex and highly skilled, but it is much more likely to go smoothly if the potential issues arising have been anticipated in advance. And there’s a much lower chance of students being traumatised by going through the reporting process.

6 responses to “How to take care of complainants in cases of staff student sexual misconduct

  1. “The new Worker Protection Act puts a duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment from occurring” – this is true but from my understanding it only applies to sexual harassment against employees. Whether a student is an employee or not is a grey area in many cases which is likely to complicate this.

    1. Thanks for this point Andy. As this is an amendment to the Equality Act, the advice I’ve had is that it applies to everyone who the Equality Act applies to – which includes students. I think this is a common misconception as the name of the Act is a bit misleading.

      1. Update: further advice shows that you are indeed right, it is currently only applicable to employees. Nevertheless, this includes students who are also working whether as research assistants or teaching assistants, as many PGRs do, so this is still relevant to some students. Also staff who sexually harass students may also be harassing other employees. So the preventative duty still definitely applies.

  2. “This guidance suggests sharing much more information with reporting parties is possible”.

    I need a bit more than *suggests* because rich students that commit sexual misconduct can hire lawyers. If I share too much and it gets back to the reported student they will cc the Vice-Chancellor into emails accusing me of breaching the Data Protection Act.

    I don’t know if it is appreciated quite how quasi-legal this work has become where a reported student has money…or rather Mum and Dad have money. You need a lot of resources to deal with the legal letters which often start before an investigation has even started. Even precautionary measures are challenged as being a breach of the Equality Act where a Tier 4 visa is affected.

    1. You’re right that unfortunately in some institutions, more and more people are lawyering up. There are a lot of grey areas in this work and these can be really challenging for institutions to handle, especially when some responding parties are getting topshot lawyers in. However, we are aware of cases where some HEIs have been able to share more information, so this is a developing area. It’s one which is challenging to fight on the basis of individual cases, as you are experiencing.

      Instead, we need more clarity from sector bodies who have regulatory weight, in order to avoid the situation you describe where it’s being fought out on the ground. I’ll be sure to make that clear next time I write about this.

      1. I’m available if the 1752 Group ever do a study of the judicialization of student sexual misconduct investigations. 😊 I’m battle hardened by a decade of handling student casework including several years of pandemic firefighting, but you need very strong institutional backing to deal with situations including:

        1. Threats of legal action when precautionary measures are implemented.
        2. Claims that an investigation needs to be halted because of the impact on the reported student’s mental health.
        3. Claims that legal representation is necessary at all stages of the process and any failure to permit this is breach of the Equality Act.
        4. Complaints against the Investigating Officer cc’ed to various senior figures within the HEI.

        Some legal decisions in this area have not been particularly helpful. My institution currently adopts a victim-centred approach, but it feels like the sector is drifting towards something that feels much more quasi-judicial. It takes courage to report a sexual assault and how many will want to do this if they know it involves being cross-examined by a barrister?

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