"Due to the college’s uncertain handling of the situation, my ex-partner was able to affect my life and intimidate me still"KATE TOWSEY

Content note: This article contains references to sexual assault,  intimate partner abuse, and PTSD

Last year, I reported to the Police and my college that my partner, another PhD student, had been emotionally and physically abusing me. He was arrested, and the case went to trial seven months later. In those months, I experienced the chaos of my college’s attempts to deal with the situation, something it was clearly unprepared for, and consequently suffered a great deal of further emotional trauma.

Currently, a student can report sexual violence or intimate partner abuse to the University through the informal or formal disciplinary procedure. The informal procedure (instigated under the Breaking the Silence campaign in 2017) has been an important step forward for the University, although the formal disciplinary procedure is still not well set up for issues such as these.

Alternatively, they can report to their college. Most colleges, however, lack clear protocols, which results in the handling of such reports varying greatly. This leads to inconsistent and unpredictable responses, often involving staff members who are untrained in dealing with these issues. As in my experience, the effects of this can be disastrous for already-traumatised students.

“This whole process had taken over two months and involved, I was told, around twenty members of staff”

With no protocol in place, the College my ex-partner and I both attended had to improvise. When he was charged (with criminal damage and assault), College initially banned him from the premises. I was suffering from PTSD, struggling to come to terms with what had happened to me and desperately in need of support, stability and safety, with which the ban helped. However, he quickly appealed against it, and was supported in doing so by staff members he was close to.

The process that followed was one of extreme unpredictability, which severely impacted my mental health. A meeting of college tutors was arranged, to which we were both invited to speak for five minutes. Being too terrified to talk about it, to a group of staff members I had mostly never met, I agreed to provide a written account of everything that had happened in the relationship. I felt very uncomfortable sharing this but was desperate for the risk he posed to me, both physically and mentally, to be understood. I felt my life in College would be rendered impossible if he was allowed back in.

The ban was retained, but for only half of College. However, this did not last long – more appeals, meetings and hearings followed. Each time, I would suffer debilitating panic, rendering me incapable of doing anything until the uncertainty was resolved. Providing information for these meetings caused me to relive everything I had gone through, exacerbating my PTSD. To make things worse, some fellow students were also involved in discussions about the ban, and it was suggested that I should ask them to which events I should go and to which my ex-partner could. I was even uninvited from some events, which left me feeling very hurt and low. During the relationship, my ex-partner had power over me. Here, due to the college’s uncertain handling of the situation, he was able to affect my life and intimidate me still.

After several more changes, he was given full access to College, at certain times of the week. This whole process had taken over two months and involved, I was told, around twenty members of staff. I should have been reassured and made to feel safe, but instead felt judged and not understood. I was desperately trying to rebuild both my confidence and my trust in others. Having to defend myself so often had added both to my anxiety of not being believed and the feeling of worthlessness my ex-partner had instilled in me.

Without the proper training required to handle these situations, staff members can cause serious harm to victims. The staff members who had supported my ex-partner, for example, continued to make it clear they did not believe me. They brought him into College on days he was banned, and actively voiced their opinion on the case with other students, in person and by email, going so far as to judge and criticise my family and me. One even contacted my department suggesting I shouldn’t be there, shortly after my ex-partner had seen me walking in. Their involvement allowed my ex-partner to continue intimidating me, which hugely impacted my ability to feel safe.

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

I am incredibly grateful for the very kind support I received from other staff members, some of whom organised counselling for me. However, with so many members of staff involved, some of whom fell out over the matter, I felt trapped in a chaotic and unpredictable situation which made me extremely anxious and prone to panic. I felt many staff members did not appreciate the impact of the situation on my mental health, and it sometimes felt as if I was considered half the problem, rather than a victim. I desperately needed security, certainty and calm, but much of the time received the opposite.

After the trial, in which he was found guilty of criminal damage but not of assault, the ban was fully lifted.  I asked to move to a new college, where fortunately I have been welcomed, believed and publicly supported. This has been instrumental in helping me feel I can belong in Cambridge again, but it has taken me a long time to recover from the trauma I experienced.


Mountain View

‘This isn’t right. My rapist is still in my college’

If my old college had policies to handle a situation like this, many of the stressful and humiliating events I experienced could have been avoided. A lack of clear process creates unpredictability and anxiety for survivors when they are most in need of safety and stability. It allows perpetrators, who can be extremely adept at manipulating both systems and people, to exercise this ability. Furthermore, the involvement of numerous untrained staff members and students is very distressing and risks causing further trauma for survivors. It is vital that colleges either have trained staff and clear survivor-focused policies in place to deal with situations like mine, or work to support students through an improved central University procedure.

After moving to my new college, I released a blog and a series of articles about my experiences. I have also been campaigning for universities in England, including Cambridge, to acknowledge intimate partner abuse as an issue among students. Cambridge has listened, and has proposed including it in the University regulations. This is, of course, fantastic, but it is not enough. What also needs to change is the way issues like these are handled, not only by the wider University body, but by individual colleges too. By writing this article, I hope to prevent other survivors from going through the experiences I did.