Tuesday, 21 Sep 2021

University of Otago’s handling of sexual misconduct questioned

There are calls for an independent body to be set up to consider complaints about sexual misconduct at universities as new information comes to light about complaints at University of Otago halls of residence.

Thirteen complaints have been made about sexual behaviour at university-owned halls since the beginning of 2019.

Three were upheld, six not upheld, one was investigated and the parties were referred to restorative justice, and three could not be properly investigated because the alleged perpetrator voluntarily withdrew from the university.

Of the complaints that were upheld, one student was excluded from the university, another was excluded for one semester, and in the third case, disciplinary action was instigated by the hall of residence but the student withdrew from university before the process was completed.

None of the complaints were referred to police, an action the university said all of the complaints declined to do.

For Thursdays in Black co-director Rebecca Shepherd, the news highlighted the need for more oversight of how sexual misconduct complaints were handled.

Thursdays in Black is a student-led organisation that works to prevent sexual violence.

Ms Shepherd said investigations ending when the subject voluntarily left the university meant that due process was not being followed.

“We want the university to be held accountable in situations like that, where the survivor might not be getting the outcome they want.

“It gives the university a chance to wipe their hands clean of anything that went wrong.”

Thursdays in Black was advocating for an independent body to be established, to investigate complaints about sexual misconduct at universities and hold them accountable for their responses.

“I think that’s really important and something that should be implemented relatively quickly.”

She believed there had been some good progress since early 2019, when a string of allegations about the normalisation of sexual assault at Knox College hit the headlines.

She cited the university’s sexual violence support and prevention centre, Te Whare Tawharau, which she said had increased its efforts in the wake of the scandal.

But she also believed tha there was more to do, and she felt the number of reported cases would be lower than the actual number of incidents.

University registrar Chris Stoddart said under the university’s Sexual Misconduct Policy and processes, the Sexual Misconduct Action Response Team (Smart) appointed by the vice-chancellor and headed by a specified co-ordinator, had oversight of student sexual misconduct investigations.

“Smart has the primary role of overseeing process is being followed and that the parties involved are being appropriately supported.”

The university’s jurisdiction extended only to its current members, so if a student left they could not be required to continue to co-operate with its processes and no penalty could be imposed, he said.

“Should the person in question later seek to return to the university, the university would require them to answer any complaint against them before deciding whether they would be able to return.”

The university offered support through Te Whare Tawharau, he said.

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