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Supporting students who disclose serious incidents: sexual violence, harassment or other misconduct

Who is this guidance for?

This guidance is for University and College staff members who might have a student sharing or disclosing an experience of sexual violence or harassment (including harassment based on a particular characteristic the student has, or was perceived to have had including someone’s race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or gender, including those who are transgender), or another type of misconduct.

What is my role when a student discloses?

When a student discloses to you, most of all they will want you to listen to them, believe them, and provide a safe space for support.

  • Listen and be supportive.
  • Do not judge or question.
  • Signpost them to specialist support.
  • Make brief notes.

What steps should I take?

Assess the risk to the student and others. If you consider the student or others to be in immediate danger, call emergency services on 999. If you are in College, you should also alert the Porter’s Lodge. For incidents in University premises also call the University Security Office on 01223 331818.

  • Create a safe, confidential space and listen. Allow the student time and space to talk.
  • Discuss the student’s options relating to support and reporting the incident both within and outside of the University, including taking no action (further information is outlined below).
  • Support their decision, even if it’s not what you would do in the situation.
  • Give advice about support networks. Encourage them to seek further support.
  • Check whether alternative accommodation is required.
  • Make brief, factual notes of the student’s account of the incident and ask the student to confirm that they agree with what is written.
  • Follow-up with the student in writing, repeating their options regarding support and reporting.

Further information

1. Assess the immediate risk to the student or others

If a student presents in distress following a very recent reported incident of sexual violence, it is important immediately to assess whether the assailant is still in the vicinity and an imminent risk to either the student or to others, and whether the student has any injury serious enough to require immediate medical attention.

If the assailant is still in the vicinity and an imminent risk to others, and you consider the situation to be an emergency call the Police on 999. Similarly, if the student has any serious injury, call an ambulance on 999. The operator will ask for your name, address and details of what has happened, so they can make an appropriate response. If you are in College, you should also alert the Porter’s Lodge. For incidents in University premises call the University Security Office on 01223 331818.

You do not need the student’s consent in these exceptionally risky circumstances. However, where this level of risk is not present, it is for the student to choose whether or not the police should be informed (see section 5 of the document).

2. Confidentiality

All disclosures should normally be treated as confidential, with the exception of where there is immediate and significant risk to the student or if you are made aware that a child and/or vulnerable adult is at risk. If in doubt, discuss with your line manager.

If you have a specific confidentiality policy within your role, then let the student know about any limits to this as early as possible. This way, they will be able to make an informed decision regarding whether they want to go ahead and disclose to you.

3. Listening and note taking

  • Focus on what is being said not on what you are going to say or do. Do not lead the conversation by asking questions: you are not investigating or gathering evidence.
  • Do not make assumptions about what the student wants, feels or felt. If you allow your own feelings and reactions to surface, this might discourage the student from feeling that it is acceptable to speak about how she/he actually feels about the experience. You should always accept what the student says regardless of any private reservations you may have.
  • Save your reactions and feelings for a debriefing session. It’s important to ensure that you have support as receiving disclosures can be impactful. The person you debrief to should be an appropriate colleague/senior colleague and it should be done without identifying the student or anyone involved.
  • Make a note of the student’s name, alleged assailant’s name if known, time and date of incident. In addition, you may want to record what help/support you offered the student as part of your duty of care. If you write anything down, it must be brief and factual without recording opinions. Any notes taken by a “first responder” (if you are the very first person a student is telling) are known as a “first report” and can be used by the Police or in court. Memories of an incident may be fragmented at this stage and you may unwittingly reinterpret what is said to you.
  • You can show the student anything you write down and ask them to confirm what you have written by signing it. This is not required, but you should indicate to the student that you are taking notes and why.

4. If the assault happened within the last seven days

If a student reports experiencing recent sexual violence or harassment where there is no immediate risk, the most important thing is to provide a safe, non-judgmental space to talk, and accurate signposting to specialist advice and support. There are also some key concerns to make them aware of regarding preservation of forensic evidence, which specialist services can advise on.

The Elms – the local sexual assault referral centre (SARC), can offer specialist advice around recent sexual violence. The Elms is in Huntingdon and the student may need support with transport to get there. The College could offer to pay for a taxi so the student does not need to worry about this.

The Elms will offer support and the option of preserving forensic evidence whilst the student decides what they want to do next. There is no obligation to go to the police. This service can only be accessed Monday-Friday 9am-5pm, though there may be some exceptions for those who are close to going outside of the forensic window (7 days). If a student wishes to report to the police when they go to The Elms they can access it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

To obtain forensic evidence, swabs are taken from any part of the body or place that the assailant came into contact with. Forensic evidence may be collected for up to 7 days after the incident. The forensic medical examination can take up to 4 hours.

Therefore, if the student wishes to undertake a forensic medical examination because they might choose to go to the police either now or later on then the student is advised not to:

  • wash any part of the body including the hair
  • brush teeth
  • smoke
  • eat or drink – including any non-essential medication
  • go to the toilet or discard any tampons or sanitary towels
  • remove or wash any clothing worn at the time of the incident or afterwards
  • tidy up, remove any items that the assailant touched or clean the area where the assault occurred

Time limits to be aware of:

If there a suspicion that drugs were given, it is best to be tested within 24 hours.

  • For emergency contraception, there are two kinds of emergency contraceptive pill. Levonelle has to be taken within 72 hours (3 days) of sex, and ellaOne has to be taken within 120 hours (5 days) of sex. Both pills work by preventing or delaying ovulation (release of an egg).
  • For HIV prophylaxis, the medication should be started within 36 hours.
  • For evidence to be collected this should be done ASAP, any evidence collected can be stored whilst the student decides what to do next.

The student should be advised not to change clothes but, if they already have, the clothes they were wearing at the time of the incident should be collected and placed in a clean plastic bag with the time, date and location where they were taken off, recorded and attached to the bag. Any bedding or a used condom, if relevant, should be placed in separate bags.

The student should also be advised to preserve any other possible evidence such as mobile phone lists, texts and voicemails; photos; and emails.

5. Reporting to the police

  • As a matter of course, staff should not go against the student’s wishes and report the incident to the police without their consent.
  • Only in cases where there is an immediate and serious risk to the safety of others (e.g. the assailant is still in the vicinity) should the Police be informed before discussing this with the student and obtaining their consent.
  • If the student does want to report to the police they can do so by calling Cambridgeshire Constabulary on 101 or by attending the police station in person. More information about reporting can be found here:

6. Further support available for students

It is important to ensure the student is aware of all of the support available to them and it can be helpful for you to think with them about who they might gain support from.

Within University or College

In general

Tutor/Senior Tutor

A trusted friend

Sexual Harassment and Violence Support Service (SHVSS)

A trusted family member

University Counsellor


College Nurse or College   Counsellor

Practice Nurse

University Security Staff

National or local Helplines

Student Union Advice Service Advisor

Other Counselling Services

University Security Staff

External support services