People walking through St. Andrews.
People walking through St Andrews, Scotland. Photo: Ed Broughton

A Prestigious Scottish University Has Been Accused of Silencing Sexual Assault Survivors

In July, an Instagram page started posting allegations of sexual assault at the University of St Andrews. Within days, captions, comments and entire posts started to disappear. The university "categorically" denies suppressing survivor testimonies.
17 July 2020, 12:47pm

Created in early July, the "St Andrews Survivors" Instagram account has published over 40 posts detailing students' testimony of sexual assault at the prestigious Scottish university. The posts exposed alarming accounts of alleged rape and harassment suffered on campus.

While the alleged incidents took place in social gatherings across campus, the St Andrews branch of the global fraternity group Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) has been hit by 12 allegations. One post is from a student who says they were assaulted by a member of the fraternity's extended friendship group, claiming the alleged perpetrator then bragged about the incident as a "conquest".

Within days of going public, St Andrews Survivors had received thousands of followers and comments on its posts. But then comments and captions, followed by entire posts, started to disappear.

A follow-up announcement by the admin clarified the situation: the university had requested that posts referencing a specific on-campus group or society should be removed due to legal concerns and in the interests of "fairness, and student safety". In the same clarification, the lone admin announced that they would be taking a break from posting new testimonials.

On why they chose to comply with the university's request, the founder of the page, a 20-year-old current student, told VICE News: "Honestly, I was terrified. I knew posting anything identifying was going to be controversial, but hearing it from the university made me feel as though I was putting myself in danger for allowing those posts to remain up."

The admission of university involvement sparked outrage and accusations of silencing among survivors, who commented angrily under posts pertaining to both St Andrews Survivors and the university's Instagram pages. Almost immediately, the university turned off comments and tags on their own page. At the time of writing, the comments and tags continue to be disabled.

Five days after the admission, the account's founder announced that they would bring on a team of volunteers to help process submissions. They additionally rebutted claims made by students that the university had any direct control of the posts, but stated that they would be working closely with them to "protect survivors".

In a statement to VICE News, a university spokesman said, "It is categorically untrue to suggest the university tried to suppress survivor testimonies, as the account creator has made clear."

Media coverage so far has focused on the AEPi fraternity, which was named in multiple submissions. According to Emma Johnston, a third-year student, these allegations were not news to the university. "A few of the survivors had previously contacted AEPi's leadership and the university principal. Not enough was done," she says. A university spokesman said: "The Principal‘s Office has never previously received a single complaint, either written or verbal, about AEPi."

Replying to the allegations, AEPi told VICE News: "We cannot guarantee we are talking of the same things, but in October 2019 a student reported to the Chapter's executive board that there were anonymous complaints about unnamed individuals. Got Consent held a mandatory consent workshop for all brothers in December 2019." In a blog post this week, AEPi said it was "time to stop allowing people to use social media as a weapon". They refused to disclose if any members had been suspended due to the allegations.

The team of nine volunteers that now runs the account appear to have taken an actively constructive approach towards working with the university, instead of without it. They told VICE News: "[The university] has been supportive of our efforts thus far and we remain optimistic that they will continue to listen to survivors and act in the best interests of students," adding that while some have accused the university of being purely interested in damage limitation, they "do not wish to speculate about the university's intentions".

The most recent update on the account, posted on the 14th of July, includes a list of changes that admins would like to see implemented, including warden training and mandatory online workshops. The university has announced compulsory sexual consent training for all students in the new academic year.

Student Emma Johnston is on board with the account's suggestions, but says it should be the university doing the labour of combatting sexual violence: "It is absolutely true that they rely on the labour of students, rather than doing the work themselves – evident in the fact that it is Got Consent [a student-led organisation that runs consent workshops] who have been advocating to the university [to do more to protect survivors] for several years."

Madhavi Kakulavarapu, a fourth-year student, was initially warmed by the sense of community the page had created. This quickly switched to disillusionment when posts were taken down. "Censoring narratives only propagates issues," she says. "It acts as a measure to ensure people do not come forward, and [has] seemingly forced individuals to shy away from contributing to the discussion."

This is a sentiment Claudia Hockey, who graduated from St Andrews last year, agrees with. "[St Andrews Survivors] is a platform that has been destabilised after the university got involved," she says. "What is the page even for now?"

Claudia believes that by bowing to the university’s wishes, the account's admins have set a precedent by which "if people set up another page with the same purpose, [the admins] might be told to take things down because they’re too much", adding, "While I respect their mission deeply, I disagree with them that survivors are unconstrained in what they can post, because even if the university [cannot] read submissions, they’re still monitoring [published posts]."

In a statement to VICE News, the university said: "We welcome the St Andrews Survivors' account's efforts to provide people of all genders a space to voice their experiences of sexual misconduct. The Proctor met with the account creator this week to establish how we can work together to signpost support and reporting mechanisms to students who require them."

Widespread angst around the perceived watering down of a grassroots, student-led movement stems from poor experiences of reporting assault through the official university channels.

One post alleges improper conduct by a male student services counsellor towards a female student who had come in to discuss an assault. He is alleged to have insisted the student remove her coat at the door, before sitting uncomfortably close to her. This led the student to become distressed and run out of the meeting. The student says she spoke to someone higher up, but that "nothing happened in response". An ex-student, who asked to remain anonymous, told VICE News of an encounter with an ex-senior member of the student services team, who allegedly told her they would have been proud to have been the mother of the student accused of assaulting her. The experience led to them leaving the university altogether.

Hockey is doubtful that the university can fix their poor reputation for dealing with assault complaints. On how the university approaches sexual violence, she says: "It's not even toleration, it's actively enabling it."

Madhavi says: "There is obviously something so glaringly wrong with the procedures they have in place if there are so many individuals that feel unsafe coming forward. This was so clearly shown with the sheer volume of submissions to an anonymous Instagram account." She adds: "More comfort was given by a faceless profile as opposed to the institution we are all supposed to call our second home."

UK universities have repeatedly been accused of failing victims of sexual assault. A BBC investigation found universities received more than 700 allegations of sexual misconduct in the 2018-19 academic year. At the same time, universities have been using non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to silence students from publicising their complaints of sexual assault. Over 300 such NDAs have been used since 2016 to resolve student complaints.

Correction: A previous version of this article wrongly stated that AEPi held a mandatory consent workshop in December 2019.