This article originally appeared on Broadly. Every year, women in the UK are killed by stalkers and domestic abusers – despite previously reporting them to the police. Unfollow Me is a campaign highlighting the under-reported issue of stalking and domestic abuse in support of anti-stalking charity Paladin's calls to introduce a Stalkers Register in the UK. Follow all of Broadly's coverage here.
Exclusive figures uncovered by Broadly under British Freedom of Information laws reveal the numbers of stalking and domestic abuse allegations at universities across the country.
According to the data, 381 students from public universities in the UK were accused by fellow students of stalking and domestic abuse between 2015 and 2018, with 51 percent of alleged perpetrators subsequently remaining at the same university.
Forty-six percent of all the cases occurred at Russell Group universities, an association of 24 of the top educational institutions in the UK. The elite group of universities, which includes Oxford, Cambridge, and the London School of Economics, received a total of 175 complaints of stalking and domestic abuse over the last three years. In 40 of those cases, the alleged perpetrator continued their studies at the same university.
Watch: Unfollow Me: The Story of Alice Ruggles
Broadly requested the number of students who had been accused by other students of stalking or domestic abuse between 2015 and 2018 from every university in the UK. We also asked if the alleged perpetrator was expelled or allowed to remain at the university, and we requested the outcomes of each university investigation, where applicable.
A total of 119 universities, out of a total of 136 or so universities in the UK, replied to our request for data. Some institutions, such as the University of Warwick and Aberystwyth University, did not respond to repeated requests. Other universities, including the majority of Oxbridge colleges, said they could not provide us with exact figures in order to safeguard the privacy of their students.
Cardiff University in Wales, Edge Hill University in Lancashire, and the University of Sussex in Brighton reported the highest number of allegations of stalking and domestic abuse. Between 2015 and 2018, a total of 115 Cardiff students were reported by other students for alleged stalking and domestic abuse. Edge Hill received 30 allegations against their students over the same time period, and Sussex reported 20 allegations.
The higher number of complaints at Cardiff University – a Russell Group member and one of the largest universities in the UK – may be linked to a disclosure reporting tool introduced in October 2017 that allows students to anonymously report assault and violence. “Our numbers do appear relatively high when compared to others,” a Cardiff University spokesperson said. “The numbers, in part, also reflect the proactive measures we’ve put in place to make it easier for students [to] come forward.”
The spokesperson stressed that Cardiff’s reporting system encouraged students to report each individual incident of stalking and abuse, meaning that some students may be reported by other students more than once. The system also encourages students to report historic abuse, which could also account for their high total. (Effective reporting systems for abuse may encourage more victims and survivors to come forward, as the systems are in place to enable them to report.)
However, the vast majority of universities in the UK do not have specific policies addressing domestic violence or stalking among students. As part of our FOI request, Broadly also asked universities to send their policies on domestic abuse or stalking. Only 13 percent of the universities surveyed mentioned stalking or domestic abuse in official policy documents, such as their anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies or their student code of conduct.
In the US, Title IX civil rights legislation outlaws discrimination on the basis of sex at universities. Universities that receive federal funding are also required to appoint Title IX administrators to enforce those rights. No such system exists in the UK. Advice on how to handle situations in which students are accused of misconduct has been published by Universities UK, the advocacy organisation for universities, but universities in the country have their own individual policies and reporting systems in place.
It can be difficult for a university to address stalking and domestic violence on campus if it lacks official guidelines on these issues. PhD student Sophia Cooke, 28, says she experienced this first-hand while at the University of Cambridge. In 2015, she was a postgraduate student at Christ’s College, where she began a year-long relationship with another student that she alleges turned coercive and physically abusive.
Her ex-partner has always strongly denied this and Cooke would ultimately go through court proceedings that saw him acquitted of assault – but convicted of smashing a car radio during an argument.
She also reported the incident to Christ’s College, but says, after initial sympathy, that the college’s handling of the allegations was “unpredictable and chaotic,” and that she was asked to repeat her story to multiple college staffers over a protracted period of time.
“Having to explain again and again what had happened to me was really traumatising,” she says. “Every single time it reopened that wound so I couldn’t move forward. I had this desperate need to be believed – [and] knowing that I was being discussed and judged by so many people that I didn’t know and who didn’t know me was horrible.”
Cooke believes that part of the problem for her and others was that domestic abuse was not part of the university’s guidance for students at the time. Despite her experience, which saw magistrates say her evidence was “inconsistent and not credible,” she is determined to turn it into a positive.
She has since run workshops for other students to help them identify the early signs of abuse, and has also worked with the university to improve the systems by which students report sexual assault and abusive relationships. Cooke believes that specialist staff, trained in identifying coercive and abusive relationships, would improve the reporting process greatly.
“It’s helped to see good things coming out from my experience,” she says. “Because I was really resentful and lost. I had a year with him, and a year dealing with the fallout, and I just feel like I lost two years of my life, like, what was the point? So being able to see good things coming out of it and being able to help others made me feel like there was a point and a purpose to that time.”
Broadly reached out to Christ’s College for comment on Cooke’s case. In response, a spokesperson sent over a statement on behalf of the University of Cambridge. “In 2017, Cambridge launched the anti-harassment campaign Breaking the Silence to embed zero tolerance to all forms of harassment across the University and Colleges, and improve prevention, support and reporting,” they said.
“This included offering students a wider range of ways to report incidents, recruiting specialists trained in support for victims of domestic and sexual violence, and introducing training for staff in how to handle disclosures. Uptake of these new initiatives has been significant, and has helped achieve a shift in the way Cambridge deals with such cases.”
Over 353,960 people were accepted to study at universities in the UK last year. And there are signs that universities are beginning to take their obligations towards student survivors more seriously. In 2016, Universities UK issued new guidance on how to handle allegations of student misconduct. But some advocates for abuse victims say these guidelines don’t go far enough to keep student victim-survivors safe. “Without an appropriate intervention, [stalking and coercive control] can lead to serious harm, suicide, and/or murder,” says Laura Richards of the anti-stalking charity Paladin. “All students have a right to be taken seriously when they report and to feel safe when studying.”
She expressed alarm at the figures unearthed by Broadly from UK universities. "It's shocking and unacceptable that over 50 percent of students who were reported for domestic abuse or stalking behaviour were allowed to remain at the university and continue their studies,” she says.
Richards urged universities to provide staff with specialist training to enable them to identify abuse and respond appropriately. “A zero tolerance approach to gender-based abuse is needed which will send out a clear message: Violence and abuse is never OK."
Sarah Lasoye, the England Women’s Officer for the National Union of Students (NUS), told Broadly: “These findings highlight the endemic levels of domestic violence and unwanted sexual behaviours perpetrated on campuses across the country. These forms of harassment leave students feeling unsafe and intimidated. When left unchecked, these behaviours have a significant impact on students' education, welfare and well-being.
“It is imperative that institutions respond effectively to all reports of stalking and domestic abuse, with robust policies and a range of responses that centre the safety of their students. Only by taking appropriate action when students come forward can institutions build trust and confidence in their reporting procedures."
If you are being stalked and you are based in the UK, you can call Paladin on 020 3866 4107. If you are based in the US, you can call the Stalking Resource Center at the National Center for Victims of Crime on 855-484-2846.