“Zero Tolerance is just a marketing scheme”: Union hypocrisy fails sexual assault victims

Logo of the Zero Tolerance to Sexual Harassment scheme

“They make you run around in circles until you give up.”

Imagine having a drink with a friend in Phineas. All around are posters and T-shirts advertising the Union’s ‘Zero Tolerance to Sexual Harassment’ pledge. Little do you realise just how much this pledge has failed her.

Although she’s been at UCL for over two years, she is still haunted by an event that occurred in freshers’ week. She didn’t even realise how much it was holding her back until she started having panic attacks and her grades dropped a year later, leading to her consider dropping out.

This student had been sexually assaulted by a committee member of her prominent UCL arts society. She had been pressured and forced into a position of fear, panic and extreme discomfort.

Working with this student, who wishes to remain anonymous, The Cheese Grater has investigated the process of reporting sexual assault to SU UCL. It has revealed a Students’ Union which is under-equipped, understaffed, and unwilling to support targets of sexual assault and harassment.

The student had been relentlessly pushed back and forth between various Union staff members for six months, with no action taken, desiring simply that the perpetrator of her sexual assault be removed from their society, so that she could feel safe attending its events.

She had given up on the system, but when faced with the prospect of a new academic year and facing the perpetrator again, the student tried to reopen the case with the Union CEO, Ian Dancy.

It was at this point that the Union attempted to backtrack on its previous promises to the student.

Dismissive Union staff emails

In emails seen by The Cheese Grater, Dancy noted that “it is important to note that the meeting between you [and Union members] was not the correct forum to formally decide on any outcomes and I hope this was made clear to you at the time.” When asked by The Cheese Grater whether he bore any responsibility for this confusion, Dancy did not wish to add further comment.

Dancy and the Welfare and International Officer, Aiysha Qureshi, are both the points of contact in the Union’s by-laws for complaints of sexual harassment and assault. However, neither have had any training in how to deal with targets who report such cases.

This became abundantly clear in the prolonged email exchange between Dancy and the student. In one email, he said “I apologise that you feel this has been dragged out but you did only email me on Monday evening and admitted yourself that you had forgotten to follow up on your original meeting.”

Sudden system switch

Over the summer the Union’s policy for dealing with complaints of sexual harassment had changed. However, it had failed to notify anybody.

The student was informed that the Union would not deal with any complaints—ongoing or not—and was advised to instead take the complaint to UCL. The student however, noted she had been told several months earlier that she could process her complaint through the Union.

Alex McKee, Head of Communications at Students’ Union UCL, told The Cheese Grater this was so they could conduct a review of their complaints procedures. He added that this decision was made mutually with Qureshi and Women’s Officer, Justine Canady.

Canady says this was during their first meetings as sabbatical officers and “was taking advantage of someone new to the job”. Though McKee argues that Canady had started her term in July and the meeting had occurred in October.

McKee acknowledged that a review of the Union’s system of dealing with sexual harassment complaints is yet to take place. Though he assured The Cheese Grater that it will be completed by the end of the academic year, and that he is looking to contract external help.

Zero Tolerance is a “marketing scheme”

The Union has also shirked its responsibilities around complaints made against Men’s Rugby earlier this term.

These complaints have still yet to be resolved, although Katie Sykes, Sports Development Manager did enforce a mandatory meeting about inappropriate behaviour to Men’s Rugby’s 60+ players.

Considering Men’s Rugby had already signed the ‘Zero Tolerance’ pledge, this illustrates how little that actually meant.

A distressed academic caseworker at the Rights and Advice Centre is alleged to have told the student who spoke after several months of no progress that “Zero Tolerance is just a marketing scheme” and “the Union does not have a disciplinary code.”

Lack of system in Union Bars

The Union’s policy on sexual harassment occurring in Union bars appears more straightforward.

Bar staff must report the case to security who will immediately remove the perpetrator, taking their name and student ID number and writing a report. However, even this system is not without confusion.

Neither bar staff or security believe it is their responsibility to report or process the complaint. The report is rarely officially filed with the Union, leaving the perpetrator free to return—without consequence.

Until the Union stops paying only lip service to the principles of the Zero Tolerance campaign and starts living up to their own standards, the system is doomed to fail students time after time. While staff are preoccupied with passing the responsibility of dealing with complaints to-and-fro, students like those who have spoken to The Cheese Grater will continue to fall through the cracks.

Iona Jenkins and Jason Murugesu

If you, or someone you know, have been affected by the issues raised in this story, you can contact Rape Crisis or talk to UCL Student Support and Wellbeing

This article was published in CG Issue 59.