“[He] leaned over the desk and sniffed [me] in three places, typically where you put perfume.”

 Content Warning: The following article discusses instances of sexual harassment. 

We thank all those who took the time to share their story with us; all names have been redacted and replaced with pseudonyms. 

 

September 2020 saw thousands of students move into University Halls of Residence to live away from home for the first time. Many were expecting to enter an open, safe, and welcoming environment – a reprieve from the months of restrictive COVID regulations. However, some were deprived of this experience. Multiple residents suffered bullying, intimidation and sexual harassment at the hands of their own security guards. These experiences were exacerbated by UCL’s bureaucratic, and sometimes offensive, responses that saw administrators blame some victims for breaching COVID regulations rather than address their complaints. 

On December 29, 2020, Isabel wrote to her Accommodation Advisor explaining the conditions that prompted her to vacate her room at John Dodgson House merely six weeks after moving in. She blamed her premature departure on the “intimidating threat’’ posed by UCL security. Once, Isabel shared, she was affronted by a security guard who entered her room without knocking to ensure that she was following quarantine rules. On another occasion, when Isabel had lost her mask and returned to retrieve one from her room, her attempt at an explanation was met with shouting from security: “Stop talking back at me! Do not provoke me to report you!”

Isabel said that constantly being infantilized and demeaned “heavily impacted [her] mental health and sense of safety in [her] own home.” Within six weeks, security guards’ invasive behaviour forced her to leave Halls and return to her home country. Upon reporting this, her Accomodation Advisor reassured her that they would ask the alleged security officer to “provide a statement” and then “come back to [her]” – Isabel has not yet received a follow-up email.  

This incident is one of many that reflect the abuse of power carried out by some security guards at UCL Accommodation and the inadequate response by authorities. In another instance, Priya, a resident of Schafer House, found her identity being questioned by “two grown, adult men” in her otherwise empty flat at 10 PM last year. 

 On the night of January 24, 2020, Priya was collecting a food delivery from reception for an injured friend. She did not expect a security guard to accompany her back to her room to check her ID. Although she presented her passport and UCL identification, he refused to believe that the room she walked out of was actually hers. Later that night, he showed up with a colleague, insisting that “she’s a liar,” and proceeded to enter her room. After an inspection of her belongings, they left “without any apologies.” 

This intrusion was unauthorised under the terms of her contract – which mandates a 24-hour notice before entering a resident’s room. Priya reports feeling humiliated and intimidated following the incident, leaving her uncomfortable in her own home. Following a report about this incident, UCL Accommodation’s response involved an acknowledgement of the situation, an apology and a promise to escalate the matter to “relevant parties.” Yet, Priya, like Isabel, was never contacted again. 

Beyond general intimidation, multiple women have also come forward to share their experiences of sexual harassment by accommodation security last year. 

In an interview with The Cheese Grater, Charlotte revealed that she was often a victim of inappropriate, sexual comments at John Adams Hall. She recounted how a security guard at the reception “leaned over the desk and sniffed [her] in three places, typically where you put perfume,” pointing to her neck and shoulders. On a separate occasion, he asked her and her friends to keep quiet so he could “return to his phone sex.” Charlotte described feeling “scared” whenever she passed the reception. 

In another case, a former resident of Frances Gardner House, Lily, wrote in an email to her Deputy Accommodation Manager that “a security guard kept asking for my name and told me I was beautiful.” Later, he followed her to her flat and asked to see her ID. She asked him to wait in the kitchen while she retrieved it from her bedroom but he did not listen. As she was about to step out of her room, Lily found him standing right outside her door. He then blew her a kiss as he left. His “suspicious and weird” behaviour along with the unnecessarily frequent “flat checks” left her feeling unsafe. The response to her email was prompt, and stated that the “operative was immediately removed from the site” and “will not be allowed back to the premises, or any other UCL Residences”. However, this swift action appears to be an anomaly among other incidents. 

Emma, another resident of Frances Gardner House, was mistakenly caught up in an altercation between security and two boys. As she attempted to leave, the security guard obstructed her way and “pushed [her] hard, using his hands to stop [her] from leaving.” Moreover, persistent probing about whether she had a boyfriend, inappropriate requests for her Snapchat username, and comments like, “Come here skinny girl, where are you going?” only deepened her discomfort. 

Following this harassment, Emma wrote to the management complaining about how they made her feel “physically threatened, incredibly distressed, and frightened.” The Residence Manager for Langton Close and Frances Gardner expressed her apologies, but not without mentioning Emma’s previous breaches of UCL’s no-guest policy. She further stated that they will speak to the accused security guard to “get his side of events” and to “clear any misunderstandings” before taking this report further. Several weeks and follow-up emails later, the Residence Manager replied that the guard “denies pushing or blocking anyone’s way” and thus closed the report.  

The vagueness of responses combined with the failure to escalate complaints emerges as a common theme across UCL Accommodation Management. Olivia, another Frances Gardner House resident, attempted to open a conversation between management and students following repeated breaches of privacy by security guards after 11 PM, despite rules stating that security could not enter flats after this time. She wrote that the constant “intrusion of personal space” had created a deeply flawed living environment, “especially for women.” UCL Accommodation responded stated that her “concerns and queries” would be passed on to a superior, and that security were conducting more frequent checks due to an increase in social gatherings. However, she was never contacted again.

Some residents, afraid that management would target them over prior breaches of COVID regulations if they reported security guards, spoke to their elected Hall Representatives. Oliver Matheret, Hall Representative of John Dodgson House last year, revealed to The Cheese Grater that he found himself inundated with “a lot of complaints concerning security, especially from the women in halls.” Students reached out to Matheret in order to report instances of harassment to management, yet he describes how his attempts at escalation were met with demands for direct reports from victims. With students scared to report directly and unable to go through their student representatives, few avenues remained to lodge complaints. Matheret claims that, despite his attempts to raise the issue, the same “treatment [of residents] persisted.”

 Alex Skliros, former Hall Representative at Langton Close and Frances Gardner and the current Housing and Accommodation Officer for UCL’s Students’ Union, reports a similar experience. While discussing the frequency of complaints of bullying, intimidation, or harassment, Skliros stated that “I had a couple of cases a week.” He affirmed that, despite the absence of “overt sexual acts,” there were “certainly many instances in which female residents were made uncomfortable by male security guards.” Skliros says he attempted to represent his constituents by raising individuals’ complaints and following up on UCL’s response, along with prompting discussions in meetings with student officials and management. When asked about the nature of the response to these attempts, he said, “by UCL, by the management — sluggish.” In many cases, despite there often being multiple witnesses, he noted that UCL countered that the complainants were not able to prove that “X and Y were there.” Skliros also avers that the investigative and disciplinary processes were “not nearly as rigorous as they should have been.” 

The Cheese Grater contacted UCL for comment on the allegations levelled against security guards and other accommodation staff. 

A spokesperson said: “The safety and wellbeing of our students is our highest priority and we are deeply concerned by these reports of unacceptable behaviour. Working with our security provider, we will always take action to ensure that anyone found to have behaved in an unacceptable way no longer works at UCL. Investigations into a number of these incidents were acted upon. We have now opened a formal investigation into how all these complaints were handled.” 

The university also claims to have taken steps this year to improve the rigour of its hiring practises in relation to security guards: “In addition, UCL has recently changed our security guard provider, introduced additional training and coaching for our security supervisors and we have significantly reduced the use of temporary security guards in residential accommodation and on campus.”

While these changes are undoubtedly welcome by students at accommodation, they suggest an initial safeguarding failure by UCL. 

According to the spokesperson, “all Security Officers are trained in compliance with SIA Licensing.” This Security Industry Authority accreditation is a general one required for most security guards in the UK and offered by third party companies. It is required for jobs including door supervision, CCTV surveillance and retail store guards. The university further states that “Security Officers have also had additional training/coaching on how to interact with the overall student body and supervisors are tasked with training their teams for increased awareness.” The number of officers who received this training is not clear, but it is notably not stated as “all”, as is the case with the SIA licence. 

Furthermore, the fact that supervisors are responsible for training officers on “increased awareness” may be concerning. This abdication of responsibility by higher authorities may have led to the poor training of some security officers in dealing with students. Indeed, UCL’s introduction of “additional training and coaching” for supervisors suggests a retroactive move to counter their inadequate execution of duties last year. Also, while they have “significantly reduced the use of temporary security guards,” UCL evidently still uses temporary contractors who may lack the experience and training necessary to protect students. 

The university’s amendments to its hiring and training procedures evidence a repentance and genuine attempt at improving student safety. However, they have come too late, and UCL’s initial shortcomings in protecting students in accommodation have caused permanent damage. Even with more training procedures, some cases of harassment are likely inevitable. For this reason, the response to reports must also be scrutinised. UCL Accommodation figures’ apathetic and accusatory reaction in many of these cases signals an endemic issue. Their job is, above all, to provide services to students often paying exorbitant rent to live in UCL accommodation. However, instead of defending them when they were victims of harassment, some administrators sided with students’ abusers. While steps to ameliorate abuse are undoubtedly welcome by students, UCL must do more to combat a culture of suspicion and opaqueness in dealing with these cases when they are reported.