University students have a lot to worry about at the moment, and they can now add online harassment to the list. The University of Derby has just been added to the list of universities with high-profile online harassment cases, with six students suspended for comments allegedly made about female students in a group chat. Indeed, less than 25% of universities have adequate procedures for dealing with this growing problem. As someone who was let down by their university when I was sexually harassed online, I wish this wasn’t the case.
I experienced how frustrating and convoluted the system is when I was harassed online by a fellow student during my final semester at the University of Bath in 2018. At multiple points each week, Instagram posts were made using images lifted from my social media with derogatory captions. He tagged me in Facebook posts and wrote blog posts about me. Many of these were misogynistic: I was dubbed as having “daddy issues”, and called a “cunt” and a “bitch”.
University of Derby suspends students over offensive group chat
Our students’ union initially said they would handle it, but I decided to file my own complaint when the harassment escalated to an attempt to remove me from the university. In my first meeting with the professor conducting the investigation, I was asked what a hashtag was. Even now it’s still not clear what procedure was being followed.
During the month-long investigation, the harassment escalated to death threats and the police got involved. I was told that calling 999 from my phone would trigger an emergency response. I struggled to sleep. I began locking doors every time I was alone. When people noticed, I said it was because of a draft; I did not want to tell them that I was terrified. Even if I tried ignoring the posts, Bath was a small university – plenty of people would bring them up to me in passing. I was humiliated.
I’m not alone in having experienced this. One of the women targeted by a “rape chat” at the University of Warwick said it wasn’t a safe place to study for women and minorities, after she was expected to sit a final exam alongside one of the men disciplined in her case. I agree that there have been some astounding institutional failures.
Last month, Universities UK published guidelines on how to tackle online harassment. These need to be a wake-up call for higher education, as social media has been ubiquitous among students for almost a decade now. Universities need to train their staff better: it shouldn’t be up to a victim to explain how social media works to the people conducting investigations. The consequences of sexual harassment can be severe and exacerbated by time, so investigations need to be thorough but quick. No student should have to deal with escalating online sexual harassment for months on end the way I did.
The Warwick ‘rape chat’ case exposes universities’ failings on sexual violence | Nicole Westmarland
Advice should be more nuanced, too. I wish that the answer was as simple as “lock down your social media posts and block people”, but this feels too similar to “don’t wear short skirts and drink too much”.
For students who find themselves unsupported by official university procedures, I would recommend reaching out to any counselling services available. Document both the harassment and the communication with the university. Follow up with your students’ union or other external student groups. Hopefully they too will realise that this kind of behaviour cannot continue to go unpunished.
More than a year after the events, I reached out to the University of Bath to find out what decision was made over my complaint. I was told that my complaint was upheld and disciplinary action had been taken, with no further information. I wonder if I would be comforted by the phrase “disciplinary action” if I had decided to stay at the university for postgraduate studies. Months of harassment and procedure, with two words as the result. At least I can take comfort in the fact that Bath are changing their policies and procedures, which should hopefully protect other students. I can only hope that other universities are realising the need to change.
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