Universities 'should punish minor crimes': Academics assess need for police action in wake of rape case

SOME THEFTS, assaults and drug offences by students should not be reported to the police by university authorities, according to a report by a task force of vice-chancellors in the wake of the rape case at King's College, London, which ended in a student's acquittal.

Austen Donnellan was acquitted last October of raping another student, only after he had insisted on going to court rather than face college disciplinary proceedings.

The vice-chancellors say that for less serious offences - such as the theft of a library book, minor affray or possession of cannabis - the matter is best dealt with internally even if a student making a complaint wants to call in the police.

They also disagree with Judge Marcus Edwards, who said in a report for King's, published in February, that the college should refer all criminal matters to the police, except in trivial cases. They responded: 'Our provisional view, however, is that a university should do so, contrary to the wishes of the complainant/victim, only where it is clearly in the university's or the public interest.'

The judge's report says that following the rape trial, several commentators concluded that universities had no business concerning themselves with anything other than 'academic offences' such as cheating in examinations. Anything that might constitute a criminal offence should be left to the police and prosecuting authorities.

But the task force, chaired by Professor Graham Zellick, principal of Queen Mary and Westfield College, London, concludes: 'We are convinced . . . that this option is not open to universities. To wash their hands of many instances of alleged or indeed proved misconduct in the manner proposed would not only be a dereliction of duty, but would incur public criticism.'

Universities are governed by charters and statutes, and disciplinary procedures are laid down by student codes. But the task force found that these were unspecific, and gave little help in how to proceed.

'Where the offence under the criminal law would be considered not serious, we see no impediment to using internal procedures without involving the police. Theft of, or damage to, a library book, slight damage to university property, minor assault or affray, personal possession of cannabis, are, in our view, examples of offences which, whilst they cannot be ignored, need not be referred to the police, even if the students against whom the complaint has been made would prefer the matter to be so referred.'

Often the police did not want to be involved, and if called in declined to take action.

But in cases of rape and other sexual assaults, serious offences against the person, supplying hard drugs, theft of more than trivial sums, reference to the police was essential. Even if all parties wanted the matter dealt with internally, the university should leave the action to the police.

The university is entitled or 'probably bound' to take internal disciplinary action where the conduct is related to the work of the university, or occurred on campus and affected staff or students. It quotes examples such as: stealing or damaging library books, computer hardware or library equipment; fighting; assault; theft from the university or students; possessing, using or supplying drugs; incitement to racial hatred.

If misconduct was not related to the university and did not take place on university property, but it did involve other members (such as assault, including sexual assault), then it should lead to internal disciplinary action.

But if an offence was not related to the work of the university, did not take place on campus, and did not impact on staff or students, then it should become a case of criminal jurisdiction.

'The university's obligations to its members will demand that action is taken whenever necessary to protect them from risk or danger. The university cannot be indifferent in this situation, and could face severe and understandable censure if no action were taken in certain cases, particularly if there are later consequences, such as an assault or injury resulting from drugs.' The interim report will be used to give universities guidance.

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