Prestigious British university rocked by online allegations of sexual misconduct

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Prestigious British university rocked by online allegations of sexual misconduct

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — One of Britain’s most prestigious universities, which has educated a future king, has been rocked by dozens of anonymous online allegations of rape and sexual misconduct.

The University of St. Andrews has been confronted with more than 100 posts on an Instagram account alleging incidents including sexual assault, harassment, rape as well as physical and emotional abuse. Most, but not all, of the testimonies appear to be connected to life at the Scottish university, but some of the posts suggest the incidents may have happened elsewhere.

The university said Tuesday that it had received one “actionable” report of alleged sexual misconduct since the St. Andrews Survivors account was set up in July, but a spokesperson said they could not comment on any individual case.

St. Andrews University.Matthew Lewis / Getty Images file

The #MeToo movement has inspired similar social media accounts and first-person testimonies on campuses and universities around the world, giving voice to survivors of sexual assault.

NBC News has spoken to the founder of the St. Andrews Survivors Instagram account established in early July and to a graduate who says she was sexually assaulted while studying at the university.

The founder of the account, an American student in her 20s who wished to remain anonymous to protect her identity amid fears of retaliation, said she was inspired by similar accounts of survivors of sexual assault at universities in the United States.

“Since my very first week of my first year here, I had been hearing about people who were being assaulted and could identify their attacker,” she said. However, she said she had grown disillusioned as many of those allegedly responsible kept living their lives as normal and “the way that people were apologizing for acts that they sort of knew that their friends were doing.”

The university, which has 9,224 undergraduates and postgraduates, confirmed it had received 30 reports of sexual misconduct from undergraduates between 2017 and 2020.

Of these, 11 disciplinary actions were taken ranging from warnings to suspensions and students being forced to leave the university. The university said it described sexual misconduct as ranging from rape to abusive or degrading remarks.

Because the claims are anonymous it’s impossible to know whether the university and/or police have dealt with some of the alleged incidents or whether action was taken.

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The university said in a statement that it continues to appeal to those who have posted allegations on social media to come forward so that the claims can be properly investigated, and appropriate support offered.

The University of St. Andrews said it had received a “single actionable report” since the Instagram account was created in early July but could not comment further.

Earlier this week, Police Scotland said in a statement it had received no reports of serious sexual assault relating to the student population in St. Andrews since it first became aware of online allegations on July 9, and was encouraging students to report any sexual offence.

“Tackling this kind of crime is a priority and reports of sexual offences are treated with sensitivity and professionalism with victims being supported by specialist officers. We will listen to all reports made to us and they will all be thoroughly investigated,” said Detective Inspector Kelly McEwan, of the Fife Division Public Protection Unit.

St. Mary’s Quad at St. Andrews University.BWP Media / Getty Images file

More than 10 of the testimonies claimed to have reported incidents, including sexual misconduct and rape, to a university or students’ association. At least eight of these claimed or suggested that that university had failed in some degree to fulfill its duty of care. However, in some cases it was impossible to confirm that the university at the center of the Instagram allegation was St. Andrews.

The university said in a statement that staff in student services are trained to support assault victims. It said its wellbeing, counselling and mental health service is accredited by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in partnership with the British Psychological Society, which said the service was “safe, well-led, effective, caring and responsive to people’s needs.”

The university added that its latest annual survey found that 90 percent of service users agreed or strongly agreed that they were satisfied.

“If students have feedback that can help us improve our services, we’d appeal to them to make a complaint through the appropriate channels,” it said.

At least two testimonies claimed to have reported their incidents to the police as well as a university, but it was unclear if that was Police Scotland or another force and whether the university was St. Andrews.

NBC News could not independently verify any of these claims about reports that were said to have been made to the university or the police.

“The most important thing is we want survivors to come forward and get help, secure in the knowledge that we will listen without rushing to judgement, solutions or taking control away from them,” the university said in a statement.

Clare Peddie, St. Andrews vice-principal for education, told NBC News that the university cannot investigate the allegations without reports coming to the university.

She said the university doesn’t know why students were not reporting the alleged incidents but said the institution would “absolutely support” the students and any action they might wish to take should they decide to do so.

The university was introducing a compulsory orientation module requiring students to cover consent and sexual assault before starting and was working with those behind the St. Andrews Survivors Instagram, Peddie said.

“We really want to learn and understand from them why they felt that they needed to go to anonymous social media rather than coming to us and reporting these alleged incidents,” she said.

A university steeped in history

Founded in 1413, this prestigious university situated in a picturesque seaside town in Scotland is famous for being the backdrop to the early days of the student romance between Prince William and Kate Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge.

Obscure traditions reign here, from its red academic gown worn at formal occasions to the tradition of academic families, where older students adopt first-year students as “children” and act as mentors.

The university is popular with American students, who represent just over 17 percent of the student body, with a total of 1,616 American undergraduates and postgraduates.

The Lower and Upper College Halls at the University of St. Andrews.Jane Barlow / PA via AP file

A former St. Andrews student, who graduated last year, told NBC News she had been sexually assaulted while studying at the university.

The 2019 graduate, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of being stigmatized should she apply to graduate school, said she was assaulted when she was 18 by her academic “father” who was supposed to mentor her at the university.

She recalled how he offered to walk her home after a party. The next day, she says, she woke up to find herself being sexually assaulted.

“My academic Dad was like 25 or something which is like f*****g insane — that’s like two years older than me now,” she said. “I can’t even imagine … like preying on someone that’s 18 years old. … What the hell is that about?”

The graduate said she didn’t report the incident to the police or the university.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable, like pressing charges or anything like that, because I was drunk,” she said.

Many survivors like herself, she added, don’t report because they know going through the criminal justice system can be harrowing.

“Being put under the microscope and cross-examined … your word against his,” she said. “Why would anyone want to go through that?”

While NBC News could not independently corroborate her account, numerous similar stories purportedly from St. Andrews students have appeared on the St. Andrews Survivors Instagram page.

Other posts chronicled allegations including drugging, domestic abuse, coercion, gaslighting and manipulation.

According to the Instagram account’s founder and team, at least nine posts have either accused members of a local chapter of a United States-founded fraternity at the university, Alpha Epsilon Pi, of allegations including sexual assault and rape or mentioned frat parties.

A spokesperson for Alpha Epsilon Pi International said the group would fully cooperate with any investigations being conducted by the university or local police, and if an individual is found guilty, the fraternity would “immediately enter them into the expulsion process.”

“We take this matter very seriously. Sexual assault or harassment of any kind is absolutely prohibited in Alpha Epsilon Pi International Fraternity,” Jonathan Pierce said in a statement.

A Jewish college fraternity with chapters in seven countries, AEPi has more than 90,000 living alumni and lists Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel and Mark Zuckerberg, who reportedly met his wife in line for the bathroom at an AEPi party at Harvard University, among its notable alumni.

Pierce reiterated in a statement that the fraternity was “vehemently” opposed to sexual assault and harassment and will do “everything possible” to promote a positive culture among its members and the entire university community.

The fraternity provides training about proper behaviors toward brothers, guests and the community, including bystander training, lessons on sexual harassment and sexual assault and other guidelines based on local laws, Pierce said in the statement.

He said when individuals are unwilling to follow these rules, “we expel them from the fraternity. We take our policies earnestly.”

However, as of Sept. 17 he said the fraternity has not taken disciplinary action against any member, because no one had come forward and specifically named an individual.

The founder of the Instagram account cautioned that the testimonies by no means only chronicled instances allegedly involving members of frats and sports teams.

“Many, if not most, of the accounts that we received were assaults by acquaintances, assaults by flatmates, assaults by boyfriends and girlfriends and friends,” she said.

As the Instagram account began to gain attention, some of the posts referring to specific groups were taken down after the university said the information they contained could be dangerous for the founder as well as the survivors because of possible retaliation from those identified, the account founder said in a post.

They have now been reposted making sure that the account only identifies the group and not descriptors of individuals, the founder and the team behind the account told NBC News, adding that the account also now has lawyers looking over posts.

“We do not post stories based on rumors or non-firsthand accounts,” the team said in an email.

Not just a U.S. problem

Sexual assault on campus in the United States has been making headlines for years.

A survey conducted last year by the Association of American Universities on sexual assault and misconduct at 33 U.S. schools, found that around 1 in 4 undergraduate women reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force or inability to consent since enrolling in their respective school.

But assault is by no means unique to U.S. college campuses.

In the U.K., more than half of university students said they have been exposed to unwanted sexual behavior, ranging from cat-calling to being forced into sex, according to a survey last year designed by sexual health charity Brook and distributed through the Dig-In student database. Only a quarter of students who were forced into having sex went on to report it, according to the survey.

At the University of St. Andrews, Elise Lenzi is the president of Got Consent, a student-run initiative that hosts workshops to provide information and start conversations on sexual consent and bystander intervention, among other topics.

Got Consent is also trying to make reporting sexual assault to student services easier by making interactive infographics and short videos that explain the process, she added.

For Lenzi, who is from Massachusetts, the most surprising or disheartening thing about the allegations on the Instagram account was that they caught some of her peers by surprise.

“I was more surprised that people didn’t know that this was going on,” she said, explaining that was probably because she works in this area.

Lenzi added that sexual misconduct was a problem on all university campuses and across society and that it was common for people not to want to report their experiences, especially if they end up going through a disciplinary procedure or have to give up their anonymity.

“It’s not necessarily surprising but it is something that the police, every university, every organization is working on, making that better and making that easier and more straightforward for survivors,” she said.

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