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YUSU outcome fails to ban Debating Society member after a Nazi outburst

Nouse investigation reveals that YUSU’s response to complaint left former President dissatisfied

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Image Credit: Ed Halford

Nouse has obtained video footage of a student referencing the Nazis and the Holocaust during the Debating Society’s British-Parliamentary-style debate on 11 November 2021.

The society was hosting a social and debating the motion ‘this house would sink Derwent college into the campus lake’. The student then made the following point of information: “Why sink it when we can take a page out of Hitler’s book and gas them?”, with “them” referencing Derwent students. The student was immediately reprimanded by the now former Debating Society President Fae Hicks and asked to leave the social.

On the night of the social an email was immediately sent to a YUSU staff member to make them aware of the offensive incident and a “report on the University report and support system” was “filed.” After an investigation was held, YUSU decided to not ban the member.

In an email on 7 February 2022, a YUSU staff member clarified: “While the student has indicated they have no intention of returning to the Club, I understand that you were seeking that they should be banned from the Society. Please note that this is not a Panel outcome in this instance”.

The social was styled as ‘drunk debating’ and had 28 participants. However, the former President confirmed to Nouse “[the student] was not drunk at the ‘drunk debating.’ They had mentioned a few times that they were teetotal”. When Nouse asked why the society was debating this motion the former President added: “Drunk debates steer away from serious topics of regular training. Instead we focus on jovial motions touching on themes of college rivalry, invading The North Pole, or whether Boris Johnson should be given a hair brush”.

The Debating Society informed the student in question on 12 November 2021, one day after the incident, that they had “filed a report [against them] to the University and YUSU”. Later that day, on 12 November 2021, the student apologised to the Debating society for their “immature and insensitive” as well as “inappropriate and hurtful” comments.

In an email, the student said: “I am very sorry to all of you and everybody in the society for my thoughtlessness and making light of such a horrific event”. They added: “I said those words in a very misguided attempt to continue the mood and tone, but I now realise that referencing real world tragedies was not acceptable and was in incredibly poor taste”. Nouse offered the student the opportunity to comment and they declined the opportunity to do so.

On 15 November, the email sent on 11 November was followed up by reporting the incident to a different YUSU staff member. YUSU were informed that the society “would like to open a complaint against the student.” The email highlighted that the student had made a “very inappropriate comment” and the society therefore believed that the incident was a “harmful (level 2) moderate (level 2) breach of the code of conduct.”

Fae clearly stated in the email that the society’s committee agreed that the student should receive an “expulsion” and the society would “prefer not to have this member return to activities.”

Fae emailed the same YUSU staff member on 18 November again, sending across the “complaints submission” and a “video of the comment”. This is the same video which Nouse has managed to obtain. The complaint details how “the committee agree unanimously that we would prefer that the student did not return to any of our activities.” Fae emphasises to YUSU in the complaint that the Debating Society “feel that we must make it clear that the society does not condone the sentiments expressed by the student and we think the only way to do this is to remove the student from the society all together.”

The YUSU staff member was quick to reply to the submission of the complaint on 19 November, thanking Fae and “confirming receipt of the documents.” Fae was told that “Once I have reviewed everything , I will be back in touch with you to discuss the next steps, likely early next week.” The YUSU staff member did ensure they were in regular contact with Fae and emailed back as promised “early next week” on 24 November.

Fae was only told that the “investigation has now been completed” and an outcome decided on 7 February 2022. In an email written by a YUSU staff member, Fae was told that they were unable to share with her the “details of the outcome, however please be assured that appropriate action has been taken.”

However, crucially YUSU were able to tell Fae that the outcome would not be following the Debating Society’s recommendation to disallow the student from attending the society’s future events. The Debating Society committee’s idea of “appropriate action” was therefore different from that of YUSU’s.

Patrick O’Donnell, President of University of York Students’ Union, said: “While we can’t comment on individual cases, we have a robust policy in place to ensure standards of conduct reflect the inclusive and educational nature of our community. This policy provides a framework to enable the Union to take a consistent approach to complaint handling.

“Students cannot pre-determine outcomes when they submit complaints. As necessary, independent panels consider these to ensure outcomes are reasonable and proportionate on a case by case basis. Furthermore, only the reported student will receive the full outcome of an investigation.

“All societies have a responsibility to reflect on how their events and activities are run to ensure that breaches of this policy do not take place. This includes the framing of debates concerning members of a college.”

The student has not returned to any of the society’s events since but remains free to do so if they please. Despite videographic evidence of inappropriate comments, YUSU were not willing to ensure that the student was “banned from the society.”

YUSU’s response to the complaint also suggested that the society was at fault for not establishing “ground rules” for “such events to clarify what is acceptable behaviour to support the event management framework around such activity.” The YUSU staff member said this would “encourage members taking responsibility for their actions and fostering respectful debates.” This suggestion was put forward in the email despite the Debating Society’s rule in their code of conduct stating: “Members must conduct themselves in an appropriate, respectful manner especially during events involving the consumption of alcohol.”

The Debating Society and Fae have made several complaints to YUSU in the past year and this only constitutes one of them. After other incidents Fae complained about, she resigned as President on 23 February 2022 and posted on the Debating Society’s Instagram story explaining her resignation by saying: “I can no longer condone working within YUSU and with committee members who tacitly condone misconduct by their support of YUSU’s repeated failures to investigate and to take action”.

The current President of Debating Society Fin Lewis said: “The society deplores racism in all forms, and we regret that such upsetting incidents may not reflect this.

“Specifically, discussions about the Nazi regime and its atrocities are not to be taken lightly. It is not representative of the society, or the equal environment that we always seek to achieve at events.

“However, I would like to touch on a more positive note and thank the former committee as a whole – but the President in particular – about their commendable efforts to work on such issues.  As a united committee, we are all looking to build on their work.”

Since Fae’s resignation she has told Nouse: “After three months YUSU presented their report which made it clear they would take no action to protect members of the debating society from this person. If YUSU are happy to let such a blatant code of conduct violation go unreprimanded I dread to think of what else they’ve let slide.”

The former President supported a motion at the society’s latest AGM which called for the society to leave YUSU. The plan for the society to leave YUSU was proposed by four members on the society’s former committee. Fae revoked her YUSU membership the day after the AGM. The society decided to not vote through this motion successfully but only one committee member opposed leaving YUSU.

Patrick O’Donnell, President of University of York Students’ Union, said: “An acknowledgement of the complaint was first made in under three working days, and the reporting student has been frequently updated throughout the process.

“While we are unable to comment on outcomes, it is both completely inaccurate and unhelpful to speculate that no action was taken as a result of either the YUSU investigation, or the University investigation.

“It’s disappointing that a minority of members initially sought to leave YUSU, but following the society’s AGM, we look forward to working with the new committee to make sure an incident like this does not occur again during their events.”

In the complaint to YUSU, Fae said, “the student’s comments made multiple people very uncomfortable” and she emphasised the problematic nature of allowing an individual to attend debates on “many sensitive topics” when they had previously been unable to “identify the line between dark humour and completely inappropriate."

Politics Student Bailey McIntosh, a student in attendance, told Nouse: “I was there and remember the reaction from everyone in the room. I’m shocked that they said it in the first place.”

Importantly, in the complaint Fae references that this was not the first time the student had said offensive comments.

During Week 4 of the autumn term 2021 the student stated, “I know how to make Americans scared” and then mimicked “shooting actions.”

Cameron Bennett, Debating Society’s Secretary, has confirmed to Nouse that this comment was made. Cameron said to Nouse: “I can confirm that this incident took place and that, in my view, represents the need for changes to be made within our relationship with YUSU.”

Nouse discovered a meeting with the University was held on 15 November 2021 to discuss the incident. The University investigated and held a meeting with the student who had made the comment.

On 8 December 2021, The Conduct and Respect Advisor, speaking on behalf of the University, informed the former President that after their investigation, they were “hopeful” that such a situation would not occur again.

The University’s Conduct and Respect Advisor highlighted to Fae that suspending the member wasn’t within their powers and that the member’s “attendance at the debating society” would be a decision for YUSU to make.

The comment could be in breach of University policy such as Regulation 7. In this, indecent language and abusive comments will not be tolerated under claim 7.5) Acts of Misconduct.

Former President Fae Hicks added her “hope” for the Debate society to leave YUSU as she “truly believe[s] that this is the only way the society will be able to deal with any future misconduct”.

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