A UCL student suffers a homophobic attack on campus, but university security fails to provide assistance
A homophobic attack by the Roberts’ Engineering building occurred in August. Jennifer Izaakson, a post-graduate student at UCL reported that at around 3:30pm, opposite Waterstones, she passed a man who, without provocation, shouted “you’re gay, you’re f******g gay!”. She immediately sought assistance from the nearest UCL security guards, but they failed to provide help, even bringing her back out to confront her attacker at one point. Many of the security guards also refused to help her call the police, wait for the police to arrive, or offer their names when she asked for them.
A UCL spokesman released this statement in response to the incident:
“UCL Security have investigated this incident, and acknowledge that this situation was not handled to the professional standard aimed for. Our team deals with incidents across the campus on a daily basis, and we believe the vast majority of incidents are handled with care and sensitivity, and we regret that that was not the case on this occasion. The head of security has apologised to the complainant, and instructed the line managers of the member of staff involved to speak to him about the incident and ensure there is no repetition.”
Jennifer spoke to Pi the day after the incident, and revealed further details of what she saw as a wholly inappropriate response to her assault, and further information of the attack itself: after she had asked the assailant, who was wearing a ski-mask and deer-hunting hat, what his issue was, she described the man as appearing physically incensed and aggressive. Realising that what she had experienced was, by definition, a homophobic hate crime, and that he could target other passersby, Izaakson immediately searched for security on campus.
However, upon approaching three security guards on duty, they were allegedly reluctant to contact the police as requested. Despite being in a state of shock and clearly close to tears, one guard barraged her with questions relating to the assailant’s skin colour, even shouting “HELLO?” in an aggressive tone when she was too despondent to timely answer. In addition, the three guards then went out on to the street, encouraging Jennifer with them (on the pretext of keeping her safe whilst waiting for the police to arrive) and questioned (in a far politer tone) the assailant about the incident. After immediately denying that he harassed her, the security guard stated that nothing could be resolved as “nothing happened here”. Horrified by what she saw as unprofessionalism, Jennifer asked for the name of the guard on duty. He allegedly declined and obscured his badge. Jennifer realised the guards were not going to call the police and wait with her, as had been agreed, and felt placed in harms away having been lured to face the man again. The man who had harassed her began shouting at her, “I’ve never seen you before in my life, love!”
Realising she had to take matters into her own hands, and with no working phone, she approached the nearest office, being Lost and Found. There were no phones that called to 101 (the telephone for the Metropolitan Police’s non-emergency number) externally, nor were there any employees who felt responsible in assisting. After 10 minutes of the entire security office saying they had no ability to contact the police, one guard offered the use of her own personal mobile phone. In addition, all the security guards at the Lost and Found office disputed Jennifer’s insistence that what she experienced was a hate crime. The same employee that leant Jennifer the mobile phone, who had overheard the guard ranting about the incident also refused to relinquish his name, even for the purpose of taking statements for when the police arrived. It was only when the security manager, who heard about the incident, approached Jennifer and appeared sympathetic enough to provide the guard’s name and note her complaint.
The events concluded when Jennifer, visibly distraught, was waiting outside the Science Library with UCLU Women’s Officer, Natalie James, for the police to arrive and take a statement.
Jennifer reflected on what she saw to be a failure of UCL’s employees to not only understand that this was a hate crime, but appropriately handle it. To resolve this incident, she would like to see a:
“written apology from the guard in question and for some sort of equality training for UCL’s security guards to be considered. This equality training could focus on discrimination and the legal duties of UCL to protect its students and staff and how abuse/intimidating behaviour is defined within the law. And how to deal with situations that can be unsafe i.e not to confront perpetrators, calling them ‘sir’, to politely ask if they committed the alleged crime etc… whilst lambasting the victim and making them available to the perpetrator once again.”
To date, Jennifer still has no apology from the security guard that mishandled the incident and mistreated her.
But Jennifer also believes that what she experienced wasn’t a one off incident, but a structural problem facing many students and staff. She also stated that:
“how that played out is I think if I were a man my word would’ve been taken more seriously by the male security. I repeated over and over that what took place was illegal and none of them believed me. It was like they refused to accept I could have knowledge they didn’t have.
This is also why I believe they were friendly with the shouter of homophobic abuse and believed him when he denied it. He’s a man like them, they felt they could relate to him and blatantly felt more comfortable believing a male perpetrator over a female victim. This is part of how victims are regularly blamed in society.”
Homophobia is still widespread in many university campuses in the UK, and many universities are failing to adequately tackle it. The Independent reported that 49% of universities do not have a policy on sexual and homophobic harassment.
Speaking to NUS LGBT+ Officer Fran Crowling, she elaborated more on this research, arguing that
“…it is clear that Universities need to be doing more to ensure the safety and well-being of their LGBT students. The report ‘Beyond the Straight and Narrow’ found that 1 in 5 LGB+ students and 1 in 3 experience harassment and bullying. Trans students are also twice as likely that their LGB+ peers to experience harassment, threatening behaviour or experience physical assault on campus.”
Much of this is just what Natalie James is working to resolve at UCL, starting with the Zero Tolerance to Sexual Harassment campaign. It wouldn’t directly deal with LGBT+ issues, but she did go on to say that:
“it will be giving information to security staff on how to deal appropriately with disclosures of harassment (e.g. how they should treat someone reporting, what information they should be providing, what they absolutely should not be saying). Ensuring that Security are confident in knowing how to deal with reports of harassment/abuse is a starting point for UCL in offering greater support to both LGBT+ staff and students. As I said before, Security are often a first port of call, and we need to ensure that UCL’s immediate responses to homophobia are appropriate and sensitive, so as not to cause extra difficulty and distress. Of course, this is not the only thing that UCL could be doing – but making sure that our security staff have appropriate training is a very clear starting point.”
She also stated that “this contributes to higher drops out rates of LGBT+ students, poor mental health, and LGBT+ students under achieving during their studies.” While Jennifer did not indicate that she was planning to drop out, the experience was incredibly unpleasant for her and she does not feel comfortable approaching security for assistance again.
Due to the continued work of the NUS and activists to combat homophobia on campus, including outreach and events such as LGBT History Month, there is an increasing cultural acceptance for sexual and gender diversity at UK universities. Despite this, Jennifer Izaakson’s case and many others provides strong evidence that there is still work to do in this area, which manifests itself in, for example, a lack of policy and training on how to adequately assist students who suffer hate crimes on campus. Without these necessary processes, any university will be failing to protect a large part of its student body. It is absolutely clear that LGBT staff and students such as Jennifer still do not have the support they demand and require.
Featured image credit: UCL Estates