CUSU Women's Officer Claire Sosienski-Smith spoke at a Reclaim the Night rally in MarchEvelina Gumileva

Content note: This article contains mention of sexual misconduct, abuse, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

“It sometimes felt like I was considered half the problem, rather than a victim”.

Over the past year, as CUSU Women’s Campaign has led efforts to reform the disciplinary procedures for cases of student misconduct, disciplinary procedures of individual colleges have come under the spotlight.

Cambridge PhD student Sophia Cooke detailed to Varsity her experiences navigating college procedures, after reporting her ex-partner to the college for emotional and physical abuse.

Over two months in 2017, Cooke said that multiple discussions on, and several consecutive changes to, her ex-partner’s ban from the College caused her “further emotional trauma”. She said that the lengthy process of appeals, which took place over a two-month period, caused her “flashbacks”, and “exacerbated PTSD symptoms”.

“Each time [meetings and discussions took place], I would suffer debilitating panic, rendering me incapable of doing anything until the uncertainty was resolved”, she said.

Cooke said that the College’s actions during the disciplinary procedure were “seemingly without understanding of the fragility of [her] mental health”, in asking that she speak on her experiences in a meeting of college tutors – she instead provided a written statement.

The college’s procedure occurred prior to the case going to trial, where Cooke’s ex-partner was found guilty of criminal damage and cleared of assault.

She also described communications by certain college staff, who voiced their opinions on her case in communications with other students – one of whom “[making] it clear they did not believe me”.

“I was desperately trying to rebuild both my confidence and my trust in others”

The formal and informal disciplinary procedures in cases of student misconduct have been the subject of campaigners’ efforts over the past year to reform the disciplinary procedure, to centralise policies, and to push for any college staff involved in cases to receive training in speaking to students who have been sexually assaulted or abused, to have “clear and survivor-focused reporting systems” on a collegiate level. 

At present, students who wish to report a case of misconduct of an intimate nature have four options: reporting anonymously to the University through an system introduced last year, reporting informally to the University, filing a formal report to the University, or reporting to their college.

Among their calls for reform, campaigners are pushing for the introduction of the position of an investigator – a person designated with mediating communication between students who have come forward with a formal complaint – in order to minimise students having to repeat their testimonies to multiple members of staff during disciplinary procedures.

CUSU Women’s Officer Claire Sosienski-Smith described the investigator role as taking “steps toward the idea of us centering the survivor and the survivor’s welfare”. She added that at present, “there [are] too many gaps in finding meaningful justice for people”.

Sosienski-Smith said that in calls for reform, WomCam is hoping to address the question, “Why have we had so many anonymous reports, and so few formal reports?”

Sosienski-Smith said on Breaking the Silence, the University’s flagship campaign to prevent sexual violence and harassment in Cambridge: “we don’t want that to merely be a gesture”. Campaigners have called for the University’s formal disciplinary procedure – most publicly in a Senate House discussion held last term – to move from a criminal burden of proof to a civil burden of proof, which the majority of UK universities employ.

They are also looking to erase the differences in procedures of individual colleges by encouraging disciplinary procedures to be handled by the central University, in revised procedures to be proposed by OSCCA early next year.


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Speaking to Varsity, Fiona Drouet, a national campaigner on the issue of sexual violence on campuses, argued that “in the situation of the accused having previous reports against them, [a centralised procedure] helps to build a pattern of behaviour.”

Last week, Varsity reported one student’s experience navigating her college’s disciplinary procedure after reporting another student of rape. She described her college’s failure to discipline the student who remains in her college, and to support her welfare during the process.

In September, Varsity spoke to two students who felt that complaints which they brought to their college were not taken seriously. Both cases – one of inappropriate remarks by a supervisor, and another of not being told of a lecturer’s past paedophilia conviction – faced bureaucratic pushback from the colleges.

“[The process] made me feel very exposed. I felt repeatedly judged and not understood. I was desperately trying to rebuild both my confidence and my trust in others”, said Cooke.

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, the following organisations provide support and resources: