‘My feelings didn’t matter’: how LSE failed a survivor of sexual assault

Trigger warning: rape and suicide

by Lily Shield-Polyzoides

“I still get nightmares, every single day,” Charlotte* said. She was sexually assaulted by another LSE student following an Athletics Union night at Zoo Bar in 2019. She now claims it was the repeated failures of the university after the incident that drove her to two suicide attempts.

Charlotte wishes she had never reported her case to LSE. Just a few days after she had been assaulted, she contacted the Student Wellbeing Service to seek mental health support. Charlotte claims that the counsellor provided was not trained to deal with sexual violence cases. After only a few weeks, she was told her situation had been “dealt” with and sessions could no longer continue. As an international student, a feeling of total isolation set in. She told The Beaver, “I’m alone in this country. None of my friends and family from back home are around. My dad still doesn’t know what happened.” She knew that charities had huge backlogs and the university had turned her away. She would have to “deal with [it] on my own.”

After Charlotte reported the case to the Metropolitan Police, LSE imposed an on-campus suspension against the perpetrator. The police eventually dropped the investigation owing to a lack of evidence. Charlotte’s situation was a case of ‘stealthing’, in which the perpetrator removes their condom without consent. Only one case has ever resulted in prosecution – despite the act being classified as rape in UK law.

LSE responded to the legal case being closed by dropping the on-campus suspension. Charlotte identifies this as the first time “LSE decided to side with the perpetrator”. The result of the decision was devastating. Charlotte saw the perpetrator on campus and later attempted suicide. LSE offered counselling again after learning of the overdose, but her faith in the system had already been broken. She did not take up the offer as she felt that the university had signalled that they did not want to offer long-term engagement. “The damage had already been done.”

The case was eventually brought to a Board of Discipline, consisting of a Chair, the General Secretary of the LSESU, and an academic member of staff. Their responsibility is to establish whether students or staff accused of gross misconduct have breached any of the School’s regulations. It should have provided closure. Instead, bureaucratic failures continued to worsen Charlotte’s mental health.

Just prior to the hearing, LSE transferred Charlotte’s point of contact from a member of staff on the Legal Team, to a clerk belonging to the Academic Registrar’s Division. Staff belonging to this division are usually only responsible for matters regarding student administration, not serious accusations of sexual assault. Charlotte felt uncomfortable discussing such personal matters with an inexperienced clerk, and even more so after she learnt that the individual had no prior experience in Board of Disciplinary Hearing panels.

Two days before the hearing, Charlotte was informed that the hearing would have to be delayed because the perpetrator had requested an extension due to circumstances surrounding his legal representation. When she heard, she broke down crying. She had never been explicitly informed that the perpetrator or herself were entitled to legal counsel for the hearing. She eventually had to rely on a pro-bono solicitor who could not speak English very well, while the perpetrator had a Queen’s Counsel barrister. She argues that the extension should not have been granted by LSE so close to the day, as the penetrator had been given ten months to prepare. She felt as though the university wanted her “to give up” on the reporting process. “My feelings didn’t matter to LSE.”

The university fell silent after this. On 11 August 2020, Charlotte contacted the clerk from the Academic Registrar’s Division to ask when the hearing would be, having heard nothing since 22 July. Almost two weeks passed until confirmation came that the hearing would take place on 7 September 2020: eleven months since the incident was first reported. By this point, the uncertainty had left Charlotte bereft. She was due back in London in September, having interrupted her studies. Unsubstantiated delays meant that she was unable to start the new academic year with the closure she was owed.

The disciplinary hearing eventually took place on Zoom. Immediately, Charlotte noticed that the clerk had forgotten to introduce two pieces of evidence that had been approved two months prior: “I had to plead, while the perpetrator’s QC was arguing over me,” she said while recounting this. Despite previous approval, LSE sided with the solicitor and ruled out one of the pieces of evidence.

In another show of unprofessionalism, LSE ignored their previous agreement that Charlotte would not have to turn her camera on during the proceedings. After the QC asked for Charlotte to do so, rather than declining, the panel asked if Charlotte wanted to turn her camera on. She eventually felt coerced into agreement. Charlotte recalls how it felt as though her consent had been taken away for the second time. After turning the camera on, she felt “absolutely de-humanised”. Charlotte faced a panel of strangers while in tears. Looking back, she called it “the lowest moment of my life on display”.

It was ruled that the perpetrator had breached LSE policy. Three sanctions were enforced. The individual had to leave campus if he saw Charlotte, receive consent training, and write a formal apology letter. It is notable that from this academic year, it has become LSESU policy – rather than a punishment – for first-year undergraduates to attend consent training (Consent.Ed) in order to attend society events.

Three weeks after the hearing, the clerk stated that the perpetrator had not appealed this outcome. Hours later, the clerk claimed, “some internal miscommunication” had occurred and the perpetrator had, in fact, appealed. The closest Charlotte received to an apology was from one of the panel members who claimed they were “very sorry about the mix-up”. It was more than a mix-up. For Charlotte, the situation “worsened the negative images I have about the world”.

Almost a whole academic year later, Charlotte had not received the apology letter. After personally reaching out, the clerk admitted that due to illness, the letter had been received last term but had not been forwarded on. The letter itself claimed that the perpetrator was “sorry that things have turned out the way they have”. Charlotte overdosed for the second time soon after receiving the letter. She recalls asking herself, “Is this what I’ve been fighting for? Is this the end?”

LSE learnt about the overdose the next day. They provided Charlotte with an appointment with the same counsellor that had failed her in October 2019. In doing this, the School ignored her previously stated demand to not be paired with the same counsellor. Once more, she felt “neglected and abandoned” by the university.

This is where Charlotte’s story ends. She is still a student at LSE. She has since been told by a staff member that she could be subject to legal action if she proceeds with a complaint. She didn’t need this. She needed care and respect from the university that she had lent her trust to when she first entered its doors, as a teenager.

We don’t know how many similar stories there are at LSE. Since 2019, LSE’s processes to report sexual violence have been subject to scathing criticism. LSE Hands Off, a campaign that lobbies for better sexual violence support services at LSE, came into existence following a former female student’s determination to change the “unhelpful” experience she had reporting her experience of sexual assault.

Three years later, the lead campaigner of the organisation and incoming Community and Welfare Officer, Anaëlle Thoreau, believes that these services are still failing its students. She told The Beaver that she believes LSE uses non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) against survivors. Unlike Cambridge, UCL, and Exeter, LSE has not signed up to the pledge to no longer use NDAs against victims of sexual assault. She also claims that the processes are ‘“so draining emotionally”’ that students are dissuaded from reporting their experiences.

A survey conducted by The Beaver and Hands Off depicts a depress- ing situation. Respondents have described LSE’s sexual violence services as “cruel” and “disheartening”. Other responses claimed they were left feeling “utterly dejected” and “denied justice”. LSE is an institution that in its own corridors, fosters laughter, debate, lifelong romance, and friendship. So many of LSE’s services are competent, useful, and properly aid students through their years here. We are so much better than letting down survivors of sexual violence. For Charlotte, and all other victims of sexual assault at our university, the system must change.

LSE released the following statement on 30 March:

“We take reports of sexual violence extremely seriously. LSE set up a dedicated task group in 2020 to review our approach to sexual harassment and violence to further develop and maintain a supportive culture which encourages people to report incidents and ensure they are dealt with sensitively and fairly. 

“As a result of wide-ranging discussions with experts at LSE, the Students’ Union and external specialists, we have put in place a range of concrete actions to build understanding of sexual misconduct and violence in a university setting to make sure investigations, adjudication and sanctioning are informed by an understanding of trauma. This includes training for a diverse group of staff, including senior leadership.

“We have also, working with LSE Students’ Union, employed a specialist member of staff with expertise in sexual violence and harassment to provide an additional point of contact for victims/survivors and to provide support from disclosure through to any criminal or university processes.   

“Any student who has been subjected to, or witnessed, sexual violence or harassment is encouraged to get in touch with a trained Safe Contact for information and support or use our dedicated online portal Report it Stop it. Students affected by sexual violence can also access free, confidential and independent support  and counselling.

“While some students might benefit from LSE’s model of support, others may need a longer term or specialist service. LSE Counselling and RASASC – the Rape Crisis Centre with which we have a partnership agreement –  can make referrals to these services where needed.” 

If any of these issues have affected you, please know you are not alone.

LSE Hands Off have successfully lobbied for an Anti-Harassment Support Advisor. You can contact Laura Boland via her email l.d.boland@lse.ac.uk. Her role is to provide emotional and legal support for victims and survivors of harassment, more specifically sexual violence.

They have also submitted a motion to improve LSE’s sexual violence provision to the Democracy Committee. Voting is open on the 31st of March. You can find updates and more information on how to vote on Instagram: @handsofflse.

Help you can get outside of LSE:

The Havens: helps those who have been raped or sexually assaulted in the past 12 months. Available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for an initial assessment. Provides forensic medical examination. Gives follow-up care including counselling, testing and treatments.

Phone: 020 3299 6900

Note: counselling service has a long waiting list. So, it might take a while for victims to receive emotional support.

999: when reporting matters to the authorities

It is important to make the call as soon as possible as there is a seven-day window for evidence collection.

Make sure not to take a shower or wash the clothes you were wearing when the assault took place.

Preferably place individual items of clothing in separate, sealable clear plastic bags to preserve as much DNA evidence as possible.

Sexual Assault Helplines

National Rape Crisis Helpline 080 802 9999 (open from 12-2:30 pm and 7-9:30pm every day of the year)

Survivors UK: support for male identified victims of sexual violence https://www.survivorsuk.org

Galop: LGBT+ anti-violence organization that provides support for LGBT+ people who experienced sexual assault or violence

http://www.galop.org.uk/ 

Trigger warning: rape and suicide / by Lily Shield-Polyzoides

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