Student initiations are more about group harassment than alcohol

There’s a tragic student sport initiation case in the news.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Speaking after their son’s inquest at Gloucester Coronor’s court on Tuesday, the family of University of Gloucestershire student Sam Potter argued that it’s likely there are many other universities in the UK with “initiations” problems:

Our hope is that with increasing awareness of these issues, universities step up to try and change things for the better of their students. Affecting a positive change in drinking culture will not be easy, but we have to try.”

Let’s hope so.

Sam was a second year film production student at the university who died on 9th May 2019 with an alcohol level of more than four and a half times the legal limit for a driver in his blood.

He’d been participating in the Rugby Club’s “end of season” initiation the day before, drinking “concoctions” of alcohol mixed by third and fourth years in a shed – with a tarpaulin laid on the floor to catch spillages and vomit. At 6pm several students went home but Sam, described as being “extremely intoxicated”, stayed and fell asleep on the floor, leaning against a sofa. Fellow students found him unresponsive in the early hours of the next morning and attempted CPR until paramedics arrived – but he could not be revived.

It’s a hauntingly typical case – and in many ways even more typical than that of the last major case to hit the news in Newcastle back in 2016, insofar as it surrounds a student sports club and its activities behind closed doors. That Newcastle case caused the coroner to call on the sector to do more, which in turn led to Universities UK issuing guidance which we looked at on the site back in 2019.

From a policy perspective, the Gloucestershire case raises significant issues of consent, jurisdiction and coroner understanding of student sports clubs and peer pressure.

At the hearing, Detective Sergeant David McCoy said there was evidence that lager, Guinness and rum had been drunk alongside various food sauces at the gathering:

Everybody who was there, was there of their own free will and voluntarily and engaged in those games voluntarily and were able to stop if they wished to do so”

Clearly what McCoy was getting at was there wasn’t any legal foul play per se – nobody was directly forcing Potter to take part. But everything we know about student initiations is that they rely on powerful peer pressure to cause students to take part in dangerous, harmful and potentially fatal activities.

And it means that when students are joining sports clubs or societies or taking part in group activities, it’s important that we take active steps to adjust the “meaning” of consent to take into account students’ need to be valued and accepted by the group.

As the university’s student registrar Stewart Dove said at the hearing:

There is no doubt there was a culture within Sam’s group which meant you probably felt you had to attend and had to join in. I don’t think we can try to dodge that issue. That is very clear.”

And as I noted back in 2018,

The group social benefits of degrading oneself or being seen to degrade others, mixed with the disinhibiting impact of alcohol, are central ways in which students end up doing things that they would otherwise never consider.

Universities and SUs need to make sure that their policies define initiations as:

Any activities expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers them, regardless of a person’s willingness to participate

…with training and discussion focussed how such “expectations” get generated. “We told them they could opt out” can’t be good enough.

Another big issue that the case raises is that of jurisdiction. I’ve come across too many sets of policies over the past couple of years that are still unclear on whether something that happens on a pub crawl, or in a nightclub, or at “pre-drinks” around a team-mate’s house is something that should be risk-assessed, regulated and monitored or be considered something that friends are doing in their private life.

And too often, the disciplinary and conduct rules surrounding the central university, the SU and the department of Sport barely reference each other let alone meaningfully integrate. As universities respond to Nicola Dandridge’s “review your policies by the summer” call, now’s as good a time as any to clear up any procedural confusion.

The coroner said that in view of the university’s pledge to implement changes recommended in a report commissioned from BUCS, she did not feel it necessary to issue a “prevention of further deaths” report, and recorded a conclusion that Sam died an “alcohol related death”.

Doubtless that is correct in legal terms. But as I’ve said before, these tragic initiations cases aren’t really about alcohol, and understanding just what they are about is key to understanding what sort of action we should take in the future.

They’re about elite group harassment – and as such they’re yet another reason why OfS’ “statement of expectations” on harassment that never mentions such a concept falls so short of what’s required in this “duty of care” area.

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