OUSA Did “Nothing” About Alleged Sexual Assault in 2009

OUSA Did “Nothing” About Alleged Sexual Assault in 2009

Ten years later and we’re still waiting for a Sexual Misconduct Policy

Content warning: sexual violence, murder. 

The alleged perpetrator of a sexual assault in 2009 continued to work at OUSA for years after the complaint was brought to them. OUSA still does not have a sexual misconduct policy, despite telling the complainant that they were developing a similar policy in 2010. 

In 2009, second year student Elaine* claimed that a staff member at OUSA raped her. The alleged perpetrator denies this. This claim went through the police, but after they said there wasn’t enough evidence for a clear conviction, Elaine decided not to take it further. She reached out to OUSA to get action on her complaint in 2010, but ultimately left Otago Uni.

The alleged perpetrator knew Elaine through the Dunedin Fire and Circus Club and her volunteer work for OUSA. Elaine reached out to Critic following our coverage of the alleged sexual assault by 2020 DFCC President and former OUSA Clubs and Societies representative Josh Smith. She said her reaction was: “Ugh, this is still going on? What the fuck?” 

Elaine described OUSA’s response to her complaint at the time as “almost more devastating than the actual event”. The response was “nothing”, she said. 

OUSA CEO Debbie Downs said that she was “unable to comment on employment matters involving individual OUSA employees past or present”.

“You just expect that these places will keep you safe, or at least if you bring them evidence of someone who’s a bit of a predator they’ll at least do something about it,” Elaine said. She said she was “quite mad” when she read that OUSA still does not have a sexual misconduct policy.

“I guess that whatever the new [sexual misconduct] policy is, it needs to be realistic, because I would say that the majority of the cases don't get taken to the police, and the ones that do, they don't go any further than that because they won't win a court trial.”

Elaine came to Otago from Auckland and joined the Club. Like her peers, she found her time in the Club “all very fun and exciting”. She felt welcomed by the community, and described it as “accepting”. Despite being an OUSA-affiliated club, there were many “older people” who attended events that were not students, including the alleged perpetrator. 

The alleged rape was during an event that DFCC members attended. Elaine described the perpetrator as being a “connected person”. He would “invite us to lots of parties and out to gigs,” she said. 

Downs said that accusations of inappropriate behaviour against employees outside of work are “not able” to be dealt with by an employer “except under exceptional circumstance”, such as if the employer is “brought into disrepute through employee actions”. Disrepute refers to public damage to an employer’s reputation. Although Downs only became CEO of OUSA in 2015, she said that, from personal experience, “being in a situation where serious accusations are made against an employee, but not work-related in any way are extremely difficult to deal with. Other than facilitating support for those affected, there is very little you are legally able to do as an employer.”

Elaine said she took time to think seriously about if she had consented. Trusted members of the Club talked her through it: on top of the age gap between her and the alleged perpetrator, she was confident that she “wouldn’t hang out with him alone” in any usual setting. Ultimately, she knew that she “definitely wouldn’t [consent] if I were sober”. 

Elaine felt like she couldn’t go to the DFCC with her claim because the other members were his friends. She claims that the few members she did disclose her claim to then made further allegations against the man. Despite none of those allegations being proven, it contributed to her decision to go to the police. 

Because her memory of what happened was “fuzzy”, she said she was advised by the police not to take the allegation to court. It took Elaine half a year to go to OUSA directly with her story. She told OUSA because “[they] should just be aware that he’s got these kinds of behaviours,” she said. 

She was told by OUSA at the time that if they fired a staff member for a crime that was not proven in court, and then that staff member took them to the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) “we would lose any case brought to the ERA - I know this is not what you want to hear, but it’s the truth”. 

Elaine noted that she made her accusation only a year after the high profile trial of Clayton Weatherston, the Otago lecturer who murdered his ex-girlfriend and former student, Sophie Elliot. In her opinion, for OUSA to investigate her concerns would risk her story becoming public and jeopardise the University’s reputation. “[They] didn't want [Otago] to seem like an unsafe environment, an unsafe place to send young girls,” she said.

“I did make quite a big fuss about it at the time, and didn't quite get anywhere with OUSA,” she said. She found it “interesting” that the same problems exist ten years later.

Elaine forwarded Critic a dossier of emails between her and members of OUSA staff and exec, who were attempting to establish a “safety policy” for clubs in 2010, the purpose of which is much like the sexual misconduct policy that OUSA wouldn’t begin developing until 2019.

Ten years on, Elaine is “sad” that young people are experiencing “the same culture as when I was there”. 

“I never had issues in other clubs,” she said.

Elaine remained at Otago for the rest of her second year, but then decided to transfer. She said she wanted to fight what happened to her, get OUSA and the community behind her to make positive change, “and because none of them did, I was like, okay, this is detrimental to my health”. Years later she would rationalise what happened as “a bad situation with bad people and then even more bad people who didn't do anything to help me or really care about me.”

“I mean, he was still working [on campus], like, walking around. I was a member of a few other clubs so I was still running into him … so I just left.”

Critic went to the alleged perpetrator for right of reply. He said “this was an allegation that I openly contested and specifically recall the person saying it was consensual … I understand that you want to champion women rights, and I support that, but I am also aware that I have my own version of the situation and that it's [sic] was, and still is, an open wound for me.” He also voiced his support for an OUSA Sexual Misconduct Policy.

If you or anyone you know has been affected by sexual violence, support is available:

Te Whare Tāwharau - Sexual Violence Support and Prevention Centre - +64 3 479 3790, or +0800 479 379 or text: +6421 278 3795, email: tewharetawharau@otago.ac.nz or walk-in at 5 Leith Bank, North Dunedin, between 10am and 4pm Monday to Friday during semester

ŌCASA - 03 474 1592 or email: support@ocasa.org.nz

Rape Crisis – 0800 883 300 (for support after rape or sexual assault)

Shakti Crisis Line – 0800 742 584 (for migrant or refugee women living with family violence)

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP)

Student Health Otago – 03 479 8212

Mirror Counselling Service (for ages 3 to 19) - 03 479 2970

Thrive Te Pae Ora (for ages 12 to 19) - 0800 292 988


This article first appeared in Issue 13, 2020.
Posted 1:43pm Sunday 2nd August 2020 by Sinead Gill and Erin Gourley.