Survivors hopeful about uni’s change

The University of Otago is changing the way sexual assault complaints are handled. PHOTO: ODT FILES
The University of Otago is changing the way sexual assault complaints are handled. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Grievous sexual misconduct at the University of Otago will be investigated by police rather than the proctor, a change that has sparked cautious optimism among survivors.

The university has revised its sexual misconduct policy, in place since 2019, following consultation with students.

It follows criticism from advocates and survivors about the way the institution handles complaints.

In a recent newsletter, the university said the revised policy had a stronger emphasis on supporting both affected parties and respondents.

It focused on a range of protective measures that could be put in place after a disclosure of sexual misconduct, such as changing lecture streams, scheduling set times for library or gym use and arranging different mealtimes in a residential college.

Grievous sexual misconduct will also no longer be investigated by the university, a change reflected by overwhelming feedback during the consultation period.

New co-ordinator Ben Nevell and deputy co-ordinator Rebecca Connaughton have been appointed to lead the Sexual Misconduct Action Response Team.

Mr Nevell told the newsletter students could still report serious sexual misconduct to the proctor.

"The proctor just doesn’t have the legal authority or the resources to properly investigate allegations of serious sexual offending, so it makes sense that their focus is on ensuring everyone is safe and well looked after, leaving the police to carry out the actual investigation."

Since January 2020 there had been 18 formal complaints, five of which would now be considered grievous.

There were also changes aimed at increasing the timeliness of investigations and to ensure victims did not have to repeat their stories unnecessarily.

The university’s handling of complaints was called into question last year by a group of women who alleged they were sexually assaulted by a fellow student at their residential college.

They criticised the university’s communication, the amount of time it took to investigate, and that no further action could be taken after the alleged offender withdrew from the university.

Yesterday the women, who requested anonymity, said police should always have been handling complaints, but they were pleased the change was being made now.

"I hope that the inclusion of the police who have the proper training and authority for these cases will help the victims find justice and go through a process which doesn’t cause as much grief," one said.

But, they pointed out, actions spoke louder than words.

"Despite it bringing a sense of closure now that we feel heard in a sense, we will not be fully able to move on until we know the university sticks to their promises as we wish they did with us."

The women also stressed the importance of certainty regarding accommodation changes while a complaint was being investigated, and the need for timely investigations.

A university spokeswoman yesterday said policies were subject to review two years after introduction.

The university had consulted the Otago University Students’ Association, Te Roopu Maori and the University of Otago Pacific Islands Students Association.

All endorsed the changes, the spokeswoman said.

Sexual assault prevention organisation Thursdays in Black Otago had been invited to discuss the revised policy with the university in the coming weeks, director Amelia Hamilton said.

"We hope to see some positive change and wider student consultation."