Posted inOxford News

University support services outline changes in response to open letter from It Happens Here

Oxford University’s Sexual Harassment and Violence Support Service has responded to an open letter published by the SU groups It Happens Here and SpeakOut Oxford on 2 June. 

The reply, which can be read in full here, outlines a series of policy changes in response to the open letter, as well as a wider commitment to increasing the transparency of the service’s website. It expands on the decision to support perpetrators of sexual misconduct, stating that the service has “a duty of care to all students, even those who have been accused of very serious misconduct” and that “we have avoided any conflict of interest so far”.

The service noted that only a small proportion of users were made up of students accused of sexual misconduct, who are often referred by college welfare teams. The letter added that “most often, the accused students seek advice after a police investigation or internal process has been initiated”.

The service also clarified that ISVAs (Independent Sexual Violence Advisors) were dealing only with survivors and victims, while other Advisors “could in theory work with both survivors and accused students, as long as there was no conflict of interest”. They defended this as being necessary in order to avoid prejudice in the options offered to students, but recognised that “the perception that a conflict of interest could arise from this situation can be distressing for survivors”.

In response to the accusations, the service has decided to entirely separate the advisors available for the accused and survivors/victims, but will not create a separate service for accused students because of “a lack of expertise”. Instead, a specific advisor will be trained to deal with the needs of the accused and referral routes for survivors/victims and the accused will also be separated. Furthermore, the support service room on Worcester Street will become a “space for survivors only”. The service is also working on creating further protocol to handle the event of a conflict of interest.

The response also reveals that the service plans to update its website and accompanying materials to reflect more clearly what the service does and the new policy changes. It follows concerns that the Service had not been “sufficiently explicit” about the support it can offer to accused students.

When contacted for comment about the service’s response, It Happens Here told The Oxford Blue:

“We were amazed by the reaction to the open letter and how strongly the student body feels about this issue. We had two lengthy and constructive discussions with the service about our concerns, sharing many of the harrowing stories victims and survivors shared with us, and the University were very receptive to our suggestions.”

“We’re really pleased with the next steps, especially how quickly it is being implemented, and we look forward to working more closely with the service going forward to ensure it best represents the needs of victims and survivors.”

It Happens Here and SpeakOut Oxford initially published an open letter in response to an investigation by Cherwell which revealed that the Oxford University Welfare and Harassment Service was providing advice to students accused of sexual misconduct, alongside survivors and victims.

The service had not disclosed this explicitly on their website, and was advertised as a safe space for victims and survivors. The open letter condemned the parallels that this policy drew between the experiences of victims and survivors, and those of the accused. The open letter also included anonymous statements from previous users of the service, and comments collected from the wider student population. 

As well as their work with the service, It Happens Here are currently doing further work into creating online consent workshops for freshers to attend remotely, as well as considering how online training can be made comprehensive and mandatory across the university, for freshers and returning students. They have also begun work on the second edition of Letters from Survivors, a platform created for people to talk freely about their experiences with sexual violence safely and without judgement. 

SpeakOut Oxford and Student Welfare and Support Services have also been contacted for comment.