Tom Beardsworth: the Zero Tolerance motion is illogical, illiberal and probably illegal

The word ‘harassed’ or ‘harassment’ appears thirteen times in Wadham’s Student Union (JCR equivalent) ‘Zero Tolerance’ motion which passed last month. The word ‘assault’, immediately preceded by the words ‘physical’ or ‘sexual’, appears eight times. The phrase ‘alleged perpetrator’ appears three times. How curious then that the word ‘evidence’ appears nowhere.

Wadham has become something of a banana republic in recent weeks, a habeas corpus-free zone whose only export is stupidity.

The motion seeks to combat a serious issue, that of sexual harassment and assault, which it claims 34.5 per cent and 17 per cent of female students respectively have suffered.

Recognising the scale of the problem the SU has decided to tackle it by ejecting alleged harassers from “all bops, Wadstock and Queerfest” by enlisting the use of “security companies” at those events.

The motion in short promises to forcibly eject students from social events without any investigation first being executed. Hilariously, the motion dispenses with the burden of an investigation having to be held at all. Once you’re accused, that’s it, pervert. You’re out.

Luke Buckley bravely attempted amend the motion injecting some sense into the debate, with the relatively modest demand that “the alleged perpetrator may…explain his actions (e.g. how they may have been misconstrued, or how they realise they made a mistake, etc.)”. It was promptly voted down.

Jack Kelleher spoke in favour of Buckley’s amended motion. \”A zero-tolerance attitude,\” he said, \”which of course we should maintain towards sexual or any other form of harassment, is not the same thing as a zero-tolerance policy.
\”Such a policy is anti-democratic, authoritarian and, as it transpires, illegal.”

Precisely. The SU thinks it is rooting out all the nasties out there, bringing them into the open in order to name and shame them. They will probably be chillingly efficient in doing so; it’s quite a quick and easy business, one supposes, when you don’t have to go through the bother of actually finding out whether they did it or not.

Wadhamites were probably seduced by the wording of this otherwise blatantly illiberal motion, which strongly suggests that lads – Oxford’s most infamous bogeymen – are going to get their comeuppance.

But they won’t. And not just because Queerfest isn’t generally a top lad destination.

There’s some science to it. The catchily titled Workplace Justice, Zero Tolerance and Zero Barriers: Getting People to Come Forward in Conflict Management Systems is a report written by Corinne Bendersky, a criminologist from Cornell University.

Zero tolerance not only leads to false accusations being levied, but in a relatively short period of time, she says, the policy will become seen by potential participants (Wadham students, in this case) “as a kind of ruthless management, which may lead to a perception of ‘too much being done’.
\”If people fear that their co-workers or fellow students may be fired or terminated or expelled, they may not come forward at all when they see behavior deemed unacceptable.”

Kelleher warned that the SU \”would be cast as immature, reactionary and tribalistic young know-it-alls without any sort of grasp on the complexities of such a deeply sensitive and important issue.”

He\’s right. Punishment without evidence amounts to precisely the sort of right-wing reactionism that most Wadhamites detest when they encounter it elsewhere. They can do far better.


Barbara Speed – The policy is not illogical, illiberal or illegal

Much has been written, said, and shouted about Wadham’s recently passed Zero Tolerance policy, and a lot of you may not know much about it, or why it should matter as much as it seems to to people on both sides of the argument. For the benefit of those who don’t know much about the sexual harassment policy at Wadham – or even their own – college, and the motion passed in order to change it here is an outline of how the playing out of an accusation of sexual harassment at a Wadham event actually operates, as I understood it from one of the college’s subdeans at a recent SU meeting.

You, a student, approach a sub-dean or security guard. You tell them that you have been the target of sexual harassment by another attendee of the event, and that you feel uncomfortable in the situation. In this particular sub-dean’s case, his first action would be to go to the lodge and consult with porters about further action, leaving you and the person who has harassed you at an event now lacking even the supervision it had before you reported the harassment.

When asked if he would ever consider ejecting a student from an event for sexual harassment, this same subdean replied: “No, absolutely not.” I wonder what his response would have been if asked whether he would do the same for a student passed out on the floor, or threatening to physically assault another student.

Returning to you at the event – you are still in the situation that has made you uncomfortable. It may even be clear to the person you are accusing that you have tried to report what happened. If the situation is bad enough already, or if it worsens, your only option may well be to leave – probably before the event ends, and therefore quite possibly alone. If this happens, you are now outside the event, by yourself, and more vulnerable than ever.

The Zero Tolerance motion came about partly as a way to change this situation. Because someone who has been punched in the face shouldn’t have to leave an event because their attacker is allowed to stay. Neither should a victim of sexual harassment. There is a key difference between establishing the facts of the matter and disciplining appropriately, and ejecting someone from an event: clubs and bars maintain the right to eject a patron under any circumstances, and are not required to, as Tom puts it, show ‘evidence’ before doing so. They maintain a policy which aims, above all, to prevent any violence or disruption from spiralling out of hand on the night itself. Bouncers are given the discretion to eject anyone they want, a power that can be incredibly important in situations where people are often drunk, it is often dark, and it can be very difficult to establish the ‘facts’ of the matter, especially in cases of harassment.

The Zero Tolerance policy Wadham plans to instate contains a system of investigation after the event itself, equivalent to the current allowance for deaning students in cases of sexual harassment, as with other misdemeanours. The only logical objection to allowing members of security or college staff to eject students from events on the allegation of harassment, if the procedure after the event is carried out as carefully as any other disciplinary procedure, would be in the case of false accusation: incidence of which, in cases of sexual harassment and assault across the country, is incredibly low, and lower than for most other crimes. Another objection would be that sexual harassment does not merit ejection, but this is not an objection that has been raised to my knowledge by any of the opposition to the motion. 

Another key point missed in discussions of this policy is the fact that the accused are not automatically ejected if an accusation is made. The target of harassment can request that security only keep an eye on them, or that they be warned to stay away – a request for ejection would be a worst-case scenario.

This policy is not illogical and it is not illiberal. And, since part of the working group aiming to bring the policy into operation in September 2013 is the college Warden, Ken McDonald, who, while he no longer fills the post, was Director of Public Prosecutions for England and Wales for five years, I think we can rest assured that the finalised policy will not be illegal either.

Perhaps we should be paying attention not to those who attended neither meeting on the policy, including Tom, or those who fundamentally misunderstood the way the policy would work, such as challenger of the motion, Luke Buckley (whose 32-point motion for repeal could hardly be described as “relatively modest”, as Tom calls it in his article) but to the failings in college sexual harassment policy this motion has laid bare, and to you, stuck at a bop or a ball where someone won’t leave you alone however much you ask them to, and your only option may well be to ruin your evening, waste the money you spent on drinks and clothes and tickets, put your safety at risk, and leave alone.