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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Lady Margaret Hall accused of silencing rape victim

Meg Lintern reports on an investigation by the Times

CW: rape, sexual assault

Lady Margaret Hall silenced and mistreated a victim of rape, according to a recent article by The Times.

The article states that the alleged sexual assault case of Olivia (an alias used to protect her identity) was repeatedly dismissed and covered up by the college under former principal Alan Rusbridger.

Allegedly, Olivia was asleep in her college accommodation when a fellow student barged into her bedroom. The male student “pinned her arms down and raped her”. Olivia recalls the events as being “violent and frightening”.

Her attempts to fight back left scratch marks on his face and neck. When quizzed by another student about the injuries, the attacker explained them as the result of “rough sex”.

Olivia said she thought the night she was attacked “would be the worst thing I ever went through. I was wrong – dealing with Lady Margaret Hall’s mistreatment of what I went through was far, far worse.”

She alleges that she was attacked at the beginning of the academic year, but it took six months for her to feel able to report the incident to the college, university and police. 

Her alleged attacker was briefly suspended from the college towards the end of Trinity Term. He was allowed to return in Michaelmas. Helen Barr, vice-principal of LMH, wrote to Rusbridger saying “despite all his heritage” it could be “very damaging not to exclude [the alleged attacker] from [LMH] accommodation”, expressing that his conduct had left “a number of people at risk”. 

An internal college inquiry began the following January and took 7 months to conclude that it could not be certain whether the rape had occurred. The LMH Procedure on Harassment states that in the event of a complaint against college staff, “every effort will be made to achieve a prompt resolution to the complaint – the aim being to conclude the investigation within a period of no more than six weeks”. In the event of a complaint against another student, the Procedure fails to recommend a timeline for investigations.

Olivia alleges that she was told by a member of the welfare team not to tell her family or friends about the incident. Rusbridger insists this is “untrue”.

Furthermore, Olivia alleges that she was warned to “pick her battles” and to avoid any investigation becoming a “kangaroo court”. Rusbridger and members of the welfare team also deny this.

The college was asked by Olivia to establish rules to minimise the chance of encounters with her attacker, whilst acknowledging that total avoidance would be impossible. An “emergency welfare meeting” was arranged, where Olivia was advised to avoid visiting the college dining hall and bar, and not to leave her room alone. 

LMH drew up a written “no contact agreement” between Olivia and her alleged attacker. It outlined that Olivia “must not make any information about the allegations, the police investigation, or LMH safeguarding arrangements available to any form of public media”. A breach of this clause would “result in expulsion from LMH”. 

According to Rusbridger, this was not a gagging order, but instead a request for “both parties to refrain from public comment while the case was active”. However, according to Georgine Calvert-Lee, Olivia’s solicitor, the college inserted an NDA into the document that was supposed to be about student safety. She told The Times: “imposing silence on complainants of sexual violence harms them since they are unable to seek comfort and support, harms other students and staff who go unwarned about a potential risk and harms the investigation because it is less likely to find corroborative evidence”.

Olivia has since made a personal injury claim against LMH alleging negligence, harassment, discrimination and victimisation. She alleges that Rusbridger, then-principal of LMH and former editor of the Guardian, “sought to dissuade her from complaining” because of the “negative impact” it would have on her attacker’s studies and because an investigation would be “a time-consuming and costly exercise for the college”.

Her legal complaint refers to a meeting between Olivia, Barr, and Rusbridger to discuss the internal college investigation, where “[Rusbridger] said this was a severe allegation that could ruin [the alleged attacker’s] life.”

“Rusbridger’s insistent querying as to why Olivia felt it appropriate to complain felt harassing and she broke down in tears, but still he continued. He tried desperately to convince her not to complain.” 

Olivia told The Times: “there are no words to describe what LMH has done to me, nor will it ever be something that I ‘get over’ as I have been told to do by multiple members of staff. I’ve lost count of the members of staff who tried to silence me, scare me, threaten me and undermine me.”

The claim was settled this week. LMH agreed to pay Olivia’s damages and legal costs but has made no admission of liability.

Olivia is not the only LMH alumna to speak out against the college. She encountered another student, Emma (another alias assigned by The Times), who had also experienced a threatening encounter with the same male undergrad. 

Emma told The Times: “I cried when I realised we were talking about the same person. All the time I was told by college he wasn’t dangerous now I felt it was all my fault.”

A year prior to Olivia’s rape, the male student allegedly entered Emma’s room. She said of the incident: “he was very drunk, I was alone and it was really intimidating – he is much taller and he came very close and kept saying he ‘really liked’ me. I felt threatened and scared.

“He threw himself down on the bed and wouldn’t leave. Somehow I managed to push him out of the room and lock my door.”

A few nights later, he tried to enter the room again, but Emma blocked his entrance. Although she reported the incidents to the welfare team, she says that none of her complaints were properly recorded, and the information was neither passed to the police nor the dean who later investigated Olivia’s allegations. When the attacker was questioned, he claimed the events had been a “romantic misunderstanding”. 

The Times has spoken to eight different women who studied at LMH between 2015-21. It reports that they shared similar experiences of “unwanted touching, groping, and intimidatory sexual advances by fellow students whom they were often expected to continue to live alongside in the college’s residential blocks. Requests to prevent male students living next to women who had had frightening experiences of their conduct were played down. Female students said the approach from the college welfare team was to dismiss the concerns as ‘rumours’ and to say ‘boys will be boys’.”  

In light of the article, Michelle Donelan MP, the minister for universities and an avid campaigner against the use of NDAs in places of higher education, took to Twitter to condemn LMH and the wider university. She wrote: “Disgusted to read this today. The use of NDAs to silence victims is morally bankrupt, [Oxford University and Lady Margaret Hall] should be ashamed. I will personally talk with the Vice-Chancellor and Principal about the seriousness of this and expect immediate action.” 

In a statement about The Times’ article, Alan Rusbridger said: “Numerous staff and tutors went to great efforts to support and protect a student who alleged she had been attacked by her partner. Both the police and the college mounted thorough investigations into the alleged attack but were unable to determine what had happened to the required burdens of proof. The student’s subsequent legal case was met with a response which firmly disputed, denied or rebutted the great majority of claims about the handling of the issue.  

“It is not true to say there was a “blanket gagging order” against the female student… LMH asked both parties to refrain from public comment while the case was active as part of a No Contact Agreement. Both parties signed without comment or protest. The female student thanked the college for placing the agreements in place. There were no “repeated attempts” to silence either of them. 

“The student’s descriptions of some of her interactions with college staff or tutors were denied by those involved. It is not true that I “desperately” tried to convince the student not to complain. In one meeting the head of welfare and I tried to understand what the student hoped to gain from another lengthy investigation after the police decided to take no action. Even with a different burden of proof it seemed at least questionable whether another inquiry would produce the result she sought. She herself was anxious about the impact the saga was having on her friends.

“Some of the College procedures, statutes and by-laws were in definite need of modernisation, and I am pleased that this has now happened.”

Image credit: Herbi1922 // CC BY-SA 4.0

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article and would like to seek support, please reach out to any of the following: 

It Happens Here: https://www.ithappenshere.co.uk/need-support

Oxford Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre: https://www.osarcc.org.uk/

University of Oxford Sexual Assault Support Service: https://www.ox.ac.uk/students/welfare/supportservice

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