In a blog post entitled ‘Everyone’s Invited: the role of schools’, Edward Grange and Jessica Maguire discussed this eponymous online movement’s impact upon schools and educational institutions. Quite rightly, they highlighted the obligations incumbent upon those institutions to protect those in their care against unwanted and potentially unlawful harassment, abuse and assault. The time has come for real change, and not a moment too soon. Schools and universities will be only too aware of the task which lies before them in reviewing and overhauling their existing policies and engaging with students on crucial life lessons which will shape the adults they become and the society they will inhabit.
The purpose of this piece is to consider the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ scandal from a different, perhaps less attractive, perspective. It offers a counterpoint amidst a swirling storm of rage and discontent. It is based purely on experiences and observations representing those accused of the types of thing which appear on the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ site.
Reviewing the testimonies of these young (predominantly female) individuals evokes feelings of abhorrence and outrage, and rightly so. The experiences they recount have no place within society, much less within institutions entrusted with in loco parentis care responsibilities. However, as those practicing in criminal law will attest, it is dangerous to treat every single allegation as unassailable truth, merely by virtue of the well-intentioned platform upon which it is made. Whilst a significant proportion of the 13,000 allegations are undoubtedly accurate, the possibility that some could be retrospective reconstructions of events cannot be discounted.
The Metropolitan Police have commenced a series of investigations, and the minefield they and the Crown Prosecution are entering is one which must be carefully navigated. Given the sheer volume of allegations on the site, it is inconceivable that police will have the resources to investigate every single one. However, there are those which clearly stand out, both in terms of the nature of the act alleged (i.e. rape, assaults by penetration, sexual assault by touching) and in the detail provided (i.e. names of schools, and locations of incidents) which will make it entirely possible for police to commence enquiries.
In the coming weeks and months, it is inevitable that individuals (mostly male, and many still children themselves) will be identified as the objects of the anonymous complaints. Allegations such as these do not exist in a vacuum and will frequently have been discussed or shared within the educational environment. Consequently, it will not prove too onerous for police to draw evidential threads together, despite the assurance of anonymity provided on the website. An assurance which many young women may have relied upon as cast-iron, only feeling comfortable sharing their experiences in the knowledge that they would not be questioned about them. In real terms, it was outside the power of the website’s creators to make such a guarantee.
Many of the allegations constitute serious criminal offences and will be treated as such. Police officers will deploy resources in speaking to schools or universities, who may wish to then exclude the students under suspicion for safeguarding reasons. Those students may ultimately fail to complete exams or to graduate as a result of an investigation being opened, regardless of whether they are ultimately charged with a criminal offence. Those who reside with younger siblings or children will be flagged to social services, who are duty bound to consider whether risks may exist within the home environment.
Officers will visit homes/schools/halls of residence and inform individuals that they are suspected of having committed serious offences. They will be interviewed under caution at police stations, possibly (although not necessarily) following arrest. Their phones and computers may be seized and examined, and private conversations reviewed. They will be questioned about the allegation(s), as well as about their sexual orientation, sexual history, previous partners; likes and dislikes and their online pornography habits. All matters which are potentially relevant to an incident or pattern of sexual behaviour. The individuals who are still children at the time of interview may find themselves talking about their formative sexual experiences for the first time out loud in front of parents and police officers and whilst being audio and video recorded.
It goes without saying that the above are all entirely necessary steps for the course of justice to run in the proper way. Allegations with proper evidential merit will be rightly pursued to prosecution. However, it is important not to lose sight of the devastating impact which experiences like this can have on those under suspicion.
Firstly, investigations can cause individuals to experience significant declines in their mental health. Depression, anxiety, isolation from friends and family and well-founded fears of online abuse from strangers and peers are all common side-effects. Amidst the whirlwind of condemnation, those individuals and their families will need to be afforded some level of support and understanding, regardless of the nature of their actions.
Secondly, there will be individuals who feel that they have done nothing wrong, and that false allegations have been made against them, possibly in the context of a relationship breakdown or an awkward and ill-advised sexual encounter, which they reasonably believed was consensual. The law of averages dictates that some will be correct, and some will be incorrect. In all cases the question of what constitutes “reasonable belief” is shaped by societal attitudes, which is precisely what movements such as #MeToo and ‘Everyone’s Invited’ properly seeks to address. However, those against whom false allegations have in fact been made must have the opportunity to defend themselves before a fair and impartial tribunal to avoid wrongful conviction.
Those who are incorrect in their assertion that an allegation is false should, of course, be held accountable for their actions. However, the overwhelming sentiment of those who feel they have been unfairly accused (whether rightly or wrongly) tends towards resentment of (a) those in positions of authority (such as the schools who have excluded them or the police who have investigated them); (b) the complainants themselves; (c) witnesses who may have corroborated the story; and (d) women in general. The consequences of such resentment being fostered at a young age should not be underestimated. In some cases, it may lead to an inability to form healthy and lasting intimate relationships and in others an entrenchment of existing misogynistic tendencies. Neither is beneficial to the improvement of society at large.
In some respects, it is questionable whether the creators of ‘Everyone’s Invited’ actually intended this consequence at all; for individuals to be identified, investigated and prosecuted with all the resultant issues for both defendants and victims. Their mission statement, displayed on the front page of the website, declares that “To reconcile is to understand both sides, to listen, and try our best to understand people’s experiences, thoughts and actions.” They urge the community to practice empathy and dedicate the site to “improving and healing the wounds we have uncovered.”
Whilst this is an honourable intention and should ideally inform the policy basis for police and educational institutions in response to the scandal, in practical terms it is highly unlikely to be reflective of the fallout to come. There appears to have been a tacit acknowledgement of this since the launch of the website, with the names of schools no longer appearing alongside the testimonies. In conclusion, viral movements like ‘Everyone’s Invited’ are crucial for opening discourse on difficult issues in the social media age. There is an important debate to be had, and there are changes which should be made, but the interests of all children and young people on both sides must be carefully protected and respected.