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Oxford postgrad says sexual assault complaint was met with hostility

·4 min read

Open letter condemning Harriet’s treatment has been signed by hundreds of students and supporters

Students at an Oxford University college have accused staff of disregarding their welfare after a postgrad who alleged she was sexually assaulted said she was treated with hostility after making a complaint.

Harriet, a PhD student at Balliol, who has multiple disabilities, alleged she was repeatedly sexually assaulted in 2019 by a fellow student. The college has announced an independent inquiry into its handling of her complaint after she said staff made inappropriate comments about her appearance and behaviour and concluded no further action should be taken without interviewing or accepting evidence from her.

An open letter by the newly formed Balliol Community for Safety to the master of the college, Helen Ghosh, condemning Harriet’s treatment has been signed by hundreds of Oxford students as well as supporters including equality campaigners, Labour MP Jess Phillips, and Oxford Labour councillor Shaista Aziz.

Students have protested outside the college and, at a carol service last Sunday, a group wearing red stood up and turned their backs whenever Ghosh or the college chaplain spoke.

Harriet, who first detailed her experience in an al-Jazeera investigations documentary said she had hoped speaking publicly would lead to reform. “This has not been the case,” she said. “In fact, Balliol has only become more adversarial in response to what it perceives as threat to its reputation. Balliol’s handling of this whole matter has left me exhausted, highly anxious, and deeply depressed, on top of the extremely painful process of dealing with the assault itself.”

Among allegations of Balliol’s inappropriateness made by Harriet, who has endometriosis, chronic gastritis and interstitial cystitis, were:

  • The chaplain, Bruce Kinsey, asked her if she was aware of the effect she had on men, called her very physically attractive and said she should be wary of the impact on her alleged attacker.

  • Kinsey told her: “You don’t want to piss people off who you might meet again downstream.”

  • When she reapplied for disability access accommodation she received an email from the praefectus, Tom Melham, implying that her behaviour was a problem, including drinking.

Harriet provided audio and video recordings respectively, which appear to back up the last two allegations. She decided not to go to the police because of concerns at how protracted and traumatic the process would be but said the college’s disciplinary procedures contain a catch-22, allowing it to decline to act if there is no police report but if there is a police inquiry, to delay its own investigating until that has concluded.

She said she was not convinced the independent inquiry would effect real change, while Balliol Community for Safety also has concerns about it. Co-founder Clara Holcroft said: “We worry that this … will be something promised to placate us with no plans in the meantime. What we’re trying to emphasise is that these sexual assaults will continue and the system is unfit for purpose.”

The group, which says Ghosh has yet to meet its members, has vowed to protest until its demands are met. They include staff being held accountable for their actions, and given comprehensive training to deal with complaints, as well as a review of cases reported in the last three years.

Another co-founder of the group, Fiónn McFadden, said: “All we want is for students in the college to feel safe and, when that safety is interrupted, that they can turn to these welfare systems that are supposed to protect them and not feel like their problems are going to be made worse.”

A statement from the college and on behalf of Ghosh, Kinsey and Melham, said there were “factual inaccuracies” in the account of Harriet’s experience, which the Guardian put to ​it, but it would be inappropriate to comment ​further given the pending inquiry.

It said a QC would shortly be appointed to conduct the inquiry, with the college “committed to acting on the lessons which emerge from the inquiry”.

It said: “The ​c​ollege continues to offer support to those involved, and in parallel has also initiated an externally supported general review of its welfare provision, to which Balliol students are being encouraged to contribute​.”​

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