University of Otagos handling of sex assault irks victims
WARNING: This article contains references to sexual assault.
Over the course of six weeks, four students say they were sexually assaulted in their hall of residence and were then retraumatised by how the university handled their complaints. The university says investigations are complex and correct processes were followed.
Maree* told him to stop.
He had come to her room at Cumberland College after a night out during Orientation this year. They hung out, they hooked up.
When he tried to take it further, she said, she told him no, she didn’t want to. He didn’t listen.
”Basically he just sexually assaulted me for an hour while I tried to get him out of my room,” she told the Otago Daily Times.
As time passed, she began to think maybe she had imagined it. He told her she was lying about it, that he was a good guy, that he would never do that.
It wasn’t until she heard that other women in the hall had experienced something similar with the same guy that she realised she wasn’t alone.
Initially, two residents decided to approach Cumberland staff. That decision kick-started a nearly four-month process that left four young women feeling demoralised, frustrated, traumatised, and without answers.
They became ”the girls it happened to”.
In the meantime, the alleged perpetrator withdrew from the University of Otago and moved overseas.
The complaints, remarkably similar in nature, began to roll in during April.
Stacey* says she was assaulted by the same man the night before Easter break this year. It played out just like Maree’s experience — they were friends, he came to her room late at night, he wouldn’t stop. She left the hall that night, because she didn’t feel safe. He tried to gaslight her as well.
”He thought I was playing hard to get, he thought that I wanted it, that I was attracted to him.
”I pushed it to the back of my mind and went home for a week, and then came back and was constantly anxious in the hall.”
Meanwhile, Olive* said she had also experienced the same thing, twice. When a friend told her she should talk to Stacey, the pair decided to approach a Cumberland staff member.
They say they were called into the staff member’s office a few days later and were told the alleged perpetrator had been spoken to about consent, and that he had taken that on board.
Olive said it seemed like staff did not really know how to deal with the complaints.
”It felt pretty evident that everyone in the process was quite lost as to what to do or what the right thing was to say or what’s next.”
After Maree heard about the pair coming forward, she also decided to approach staff, as did another resident, Theresa*.
They were given options — support services, going to police, or complaining to the university.
All four ultimately decided to make formal complaints to the university about April 22.
Over the coming months the process would unfold. Those involved were interviewed, the evidence was considered, and support was put in place.
But by August, the complainants had reached a point where they wished they had never bothered coming forward to the university at all.
The university’s response to questioning about its processes was practical, walking a fine line between answering questions and maintaining necessary confidentiality.
But it acknowledged it would look into concerns about its communication with complainants.
University of Otago acting vice-chancellor Professor Helen Nicholson said there was a clear process for staff to follow when a complaint was received in a university-owned residential hall, and that process was survivor-led.
The Head of College will in the first instance respond by ensuring the complainant has access to appropriate support and advocacy, such as the university’s sexual violence support and prevention service Te Whare Tawharau.
Complainants were also informed of their options for formal reporting.
”Support is also offered and maintained whether a formal complaint is lodged.”
The Head of College will also notify the university’s Sexual Misconduct Action Response Team co-ordinator, who would maintain an overview and ensure appropriate support was in place.
An external investigator, a Dunedin lawyer was engaged to investigate the Cumberland complaints.
The four complainants, along with a friend of theirs at the hall, were interviewed by the lawyer in mid-May.
Their statements were summarised and presented to the alleged perpetrator before his interview with the lawyer. They were not shown their written statements before that happened.
In the meantime, the alleged assaults and the complaint process were taking a toll.
Both Stacey and Maree were referred for emergency counselling, while Olive also saw a counsellor after about a week.
All three said they received good support from Te Whare Tawharau.
Stacey said at the start of the process, they were told it would take two to three months to complete.
By August they had decided to go to police because they were fed up with how long the university process was taking.
”The way to describe the whole thing would be shoving s… up hill,” Olive said.
They felt like they were having to constantly push for information about what was happening and where the process was at.
On August 5, more than three months after the formal complaints were made, the complainants met with a Te Whare Tawharau support staff member. It was a Friday, and they were discussing the meeting with police the following Monday.
That was when the staff member told them she had received an email from the university to say three of the four complaints had not met the evidential threshold for further investigation. The fourth had.
But the alleged offender had withdrawn from the university and moved overseas, essentially ending the university’s ability to continue and escaping any potential consequences.
”The four of us are left with so much trauma and we were so anxious being in our hall, we were crying constantly, and he got to leave, move overseas, no consequences, because the uni took so long,” Stacey said.
Prof Nicholson said investigating complaints promptly was a priority, but the university had to also ensure investigations were thorough and fair to all involved.
”The outcomes of these investigations can be life-changing, so in-depth, rigorous inquiry and legally appropriate outcomes are essential.”
The length of an investigation could depend on several factors.
”While the university would very much like to be able to resolve matters faster, when compared with police and court processes, university timeframes can in fact be seen as quite short.”
Stacey said they were never told why their complaints did not meet the threshold. The three complainants were also not contacted directly by the university about the results of the investigation.
Prof Nicholson said clear communication and support was a priority for the university, and the university would look into the issue further.
She said the alleged offender was removed from Cumberland and put into alternative accommodation within 24 hours of a formal complaint being laid.
The August 5 bombshell had a demoralising effect on the students.
They decided to cancel their scheduled meeting with police, Maree said.
”It basically just broke our hearts, it was like there’s no point going to the police, the university doesn’t believe us. So then we didn’t end up going.
”I shouldn’t be coming out of this process advising people not to come forward to the university. If someone was thinking about it I’d say ‘Don’t’. And that’s so bad.”
If they could do it over again, Stacey said, they would have just gone straight to police at the start.
”But because it happened in a residential college, it felt like the only option was the uni, and they kinda did push us more towards that than the police.
”We are quite literally known as ‘the girls that it happened to’. It made its way around all the other halls, everyone knew about it.”
The women stressed they were not angry at Cumberland staff — it was the university response they took issue with.
The university did not directly address Maree or Stacey’s views on the outcome of the investigation.
A former university student, Nina*, also contacted the Otago Daily Times about an incident in January 2020, in which an explicit video of her was shared without her consent.
She said the university should have done more, but Prof Nicholson said she was satisfied the appropriate process was followed and the university was not asked to take any action.
She was at Summer School, and was staying in Cumberland College before moving into University College for the remainder of the year.
On the last night of Summer School, she had sex with a fellow resident she had been seeing.
The next day she learned from a friend that not only had he filmed her during sex, but the video had been sent to a Snapchat group of about 15 male students.
She spoke to the head of Cumberland, who she said gave her four options: two support groups, going to police, or not making a complaint.
She said he recommended she not go to police.
”I just felt really shocked.”
She said the male resident was never spoken to about the incident.
She later saw the resident while he was visiting University College.
”I freaked out and started crying and went to my RA [resident adviser].
”We had a meeting with my RA and one of the heads of my hall and they were like ‘This is horrible, we’ll come in and check on you’. They never checked on me ever again.”
She ended up returning home to Auckland, and her mother complained to the university about their handling of the situation.
Nina did not make a formal complaint about the incident. She said she just wanted someone to talk to the male resident and get him to delete the video.
Prof Nicholson said the sharing of intimate visual recordings was regarded as a very serious breach of the university’s Sexual Misconduct Policy.
”Where such behaviour is alleged, the processes under that policy are followed with students being given access to support, and the opportunity to choose the pathway they wish the matter to take — including options of police or internal university investigation.”
The university was satisfied the appropriate process was followed in this case, she said.
”In response to an approach from the affected party’s mother, the university reconfirmed the student’s ability to have the matter investigated by the university and also provided details of how she could raise concerns about the process to that point.
”No further action was sought from the university.”
A disappointing outcome
The incidents, investigations, and outcomes have left a bitter taste for Thursdays in Black co-director Rebecca Shepherd.
She recognised the university was bound by confidentiality and privacy, meaning it may not be able to fully respond to all issues raised.
But it was disheartening to hear the complainants wished they had not come forward.
”If that many people are coming forward and saying their experiences with the university’s investigation was so horrendous that they would actually be spreading the word not to do it [to come forward to the university with their concerns], then the university’s process needs to change to be more survivor-led.”
She previously told the ODT that investigations should not end when the accused person left the university, and she said this situation was a case in point.
The university had responded to that by saying it had no jurisdiction once someone was no longer a student.
Sexual harm – Where to get help
If it’s an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
If you’ve ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone, contact Safe to Talk confidentially, any time 24/7:
• Call 0800 044 334
• Text 4334
• Email [email protected]
• For more info or to web chat visit safetotalk.nz
Alternatively contact your local police station – click here for a list.
If you have been sexually assaulted, remember it’s not your fault.
Where to get help
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• Helpline: 1737
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