There are ways to share information to make campuses safer

In a qualitative study of higher education institutional responses to reports of gender-based violence and harassment, the most common outcome was the responding party leaving.

Sunday Blake is associate editor at Wonkhe

That’s convenient for them and their reputation – less so for the complaining party left wondering whether what the outcome was.

Responding parties can – and do – frequently move institutions before an investigation is complete. And sometimes the investigation is completed and they are given the opportunity to resign before being dismissed.

A new briefing note from The 1752 Group is urging sector sign up to a new scheme, originally designed for the humanitarian sector, which can be used to stop universities engaging in “pass the perpetrator”.

Keep on moving

The Misconduct Disclosure Scheme, launched back in January 2019, is designed to prevent known sexual abusers from moving between employers.

It picks up staff who have had disciplinary processes completed against them – including those who are subject to ongoing investigation, but who may not have committed crimes or been investigated by the police.

It’s been implemented by over 240 organisations worldwide, including two UN agencies, and various organisations in the humanitarian sector. But universities have not joined yet.

The Scheme involves employers systematically checking with previous employers about any harassment issues (ongoing investigations) relating to potential new staff, and responding systematically to those checks from others.

The employer still makes the ultimate employment decision, and while there’s no requirement on the action they should take on receiving information, it’s clearly an important piece of information that we would want taking references to generate – and avoids the focus of those references being purely about academic performance or activity.

Universities should make the commitment. Clare’s Law – also known as the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme (DVDS) – is now established as the way someone can check with police as to whether their current or ex-partner has any previous reports of violence or abuse.

Having a bespoke version of this for the higher education sector is pretty vital when so many students tell us that they are not comfortable reporting to the police.

Universities do, of course, use Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks for some roles, but not all – and in any event, DBS checks don’t capture sexual misconduct found through internal investigations within organisations.

Depending on whispers

As it stands, universities’ own staff and students have to rely on “whisper networks” to protect themselves – and many do not want to. A commitment to cross-sector safety and information-sharing, and a centralised way of operationalising and formalising this work, would lift that burden from staff and students themselves.

The scheme is used by political and representational bodies, charities, and many private sector companies. In its first three years of operation, 60,900 checks were carried out via the scheme, with 230 hiring processes affected by the scheme.

There can be a perception that the high number of sexual misconduct victims in higher education is because there are so many men committing sexual misconduct. But at least part of the problem is that the same ones get away with it again and again.

So the low impact number to large number of checks ratio is a pretty strong indicator that this is not some “witch hunt” scheme – but a rigorous process in which those who may cause genuine harm are prevented from doing so.

Candidates who have ongoing or upheld findings against them can still be employed by organisations that are members of the scheme, which can be embedded at the stage of recruitment that organisations choose.

The 1752 Group recommends that checks are carried out at the shortlisting stage, ahead of interviews – so that if any findings come up, employers can add an interview question to explore any issues identified. In principle, that is great for those interested in rehabilitation and restorative justice.

And it’s legally sound. Eversheds Sutherland is quoted in the briefing confirming:

It would be lawful for a prospective employer to specifically ask an institutional referee whether the person they are considering employing had any live disciplinary warnings at the time their employment ended or was dismissed on the grounds of misconduct. ‘It would also be legitimate for a specific question to be asked as to whether the person was the subject of any such complaint, or of an investigation into such a complaint, at the time when their employment ended or they gave notice to end that employment.

The 1752 Group also encourage universities to be transparent in job adverts that they are members of the scheme by, for example, adding clauses to job application information and employment contracts to indicate that this data may be shared. Informing potential candidates of the engagement in the scheme could act as a deterrent to perpetrators applying for the role.

What’s the bigger risk?

Although The 1752 Group and Eversheds had advice on minimising them, that’s not to say that there aren’t risks for employers – but it’s the balance of risks that matters. The group argues that the biggest risk is not sharing information – but hiring abusers.

In 2018, Oxfam suffered severe financial and reputational penalties for its failings, particularly when it was noted that key abusers had been dismissed for misconduct before and had been re-employed by other organisations subsequent to their dismissal from Oxfam.

Once the sector has implemented the scheme, the next step will need to be students moving between institutions, as well as staff – to tackle cases like this in which a student Ellie Wilson later found out that the fellow student who had raped had been expelled from his other university had been investigated for sexual misconduct before.

The sector is generally good at sharing ideas and practice. If universities want to share intel on keeping staff and students safe, it’s increasingly clear that it both can and should.

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