One of the female students targeted by a male “rape chat” group at the University of Warwick has warned women and minorities that it is not a safe place to study.
Danielle – not her real name – questioned the fitness of the university’s vice-chancellor, Stuart Croft, to do his job because of his response to the complaint she and another female student brought last year after discovering they had been the subject of violent sexual comments exchanged among a group of male undergraduates.
In an interview with the Guardian, she said: “I think that if you are a girl or if you’re a minority, if you’ve been through past traumas, knowing that your university is going to care for you is really important. I think right now Warwick haven’t proven their ability to do that.”
The woman, who had to sit one of her final-year exams alongside one of the men disciplined in the case, added: “Their track record would encourage me to say to people that maybe they’re better to go elsewhere. If you want somewhere that’s going to be zero tolerance for discrimination, it’s not the right place to be.”
Her comments came after an independent review, published this week, criticised Warwick’s handling of the scandal, recommending reforms to improve its handling of sexual violence and misconduct. Croft subsequently apologised to the victims, admitting that the university had made mistakes.
Danielle, who is one of two women suing the university for discrimination and negligence, said the university’s response to her legal action “completely contradicts everything that Croft has said in public”.
She said: “The university has responded with a letter which says that we have no grounds and that they are disputing any liability. I think there’s a will on [Croft’s] part to do the right thing now, although not legally. That’s frustrating me.”
She noted that the vice-chancellor had last December blocked further internal investigation of the complaint she brought with another female student, a decision that prompted a public outcry. “His whole approach was to just try and shut it down and brush it under the carpet. He is ultimately head of the university, and if you can’t listen to students, I don’t know how capable you are of doing that job.”
The independent review of Warwick’s handling of the complaint concluded there was “a profoundly unsatisfactory outcome for almost every single person involved”.
The report details how nine men were initially suspended after the long-running group chat came to light, with six subsequently given campus bans ranging from one year to life. But two of the men’s 10-year bans were reduced to one year after they appealed to the university, leaving the complainants fearful of seeing them on campus.
Danielle said Warwick has yet to prove it has learned lessons from the case because she was made to sit one of her final exams this year with one of the men from the chat group.
Despite her efforts to arrange to take her exams alone, the man entered the room and sat next to her. She added that the invigilator left the room several times. Only her fear that walking out might risk her degree stopped her from leaving.
She said: “To be in a confined space, just me and him, was really scary. I was really shaken up. There was no one else on campus because it was a Saturday. I ended up having to call my partner to come and collect me because I literally didn’t feel like I could make it home. I think it’s a real failure of safeguarding.”
The graduate said the university’s internal investigation of the scandal had further traumatised her and the other complainant targeted in the group chat, which graphically discussed rape, sexual assault and genital mutilation, as well as racism, antisemitism and homophobia.
She condemned the Warwick press officer Peter Dunn, who investigated the complaint, saying his “accusatory” questioning of her had triggered emotional distress. She said: “He went through every single boy [accused] and said, have you ever slept with this boy?
“Then we had over 90 screenshots [of the chat messages] and we were taken through them one by one. And he was like, OK, can you explain what you interpret this to mean for every single quote? Which was intense. I got really upset and I asked him to leave [the room].”
She welcomed the independent review’s recommendation that only specially trained staff should investigate complaints of sexual violence and misconduct. “I really hope that it’s not just Warwick that learns from this,” she added.
Despite her trauma, Danielle graduated with a 1st and has a place to do a master’s and a PhD at another university. But she said she and her fellow complainant were “grieving for the university experience we should have had”.
A spokesman for the University of Warwick said it apologised for mistakes made in the case. But he added that the independent review noted staff acted “conscientiously, in good faith and with the best of intentions”.
The spokesman added that the “incredibly upsetting” exam incident happened after a late change to the room schedule, which the male student was informed of but did not observe. “The mistake was quickly recognised and [he] was directed to the correct room. An investigation was carried out and measures have been put in place to ensure a similar situation cannot happen again.”