Uni lecturer to challenge employer over cyber-bullying

A university lecturer who claims he was cyber-bullied by students has won the right to challenge his employer for allegedly failing to tackle the problem.

Simon Spacey, a senior lecturer in computer science at the University of Waikato, claims his life was made a “misery” by students who bullied and harassed him online, and that the university failed to put a stop to it when he complained.

He has taken the university to the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) seeking more than $1.8 million in remedies.

Dr Spacey’s other claims include that the university failed to provide information about advancement, used different rules to assess him in performance reviews and re-interpreted intellectual property rights.

The university claimed his complaints did not amount to a personal grievance and were not raised within the required 90-day timeframe.

Dr Spacey told the ERA he was the victim of cyber-bullying attacks through fake websites, posts on social media, emails and publications in the student newspaper.

He claimed the attacks were “supported by staff at Waikato University and other universities”, that his employer had “failed to investigate his allegations”, and the cyber-bullying “made his personal and professional life a misery”.

He said he lodged a statement of problem in December 2014, more than a year after first alerting his head of department to the cyber-bullying. At that stage it had included posts on social media sites, including Reddit, and an abusive email. He believed students were responsible.

He told the ERA that in November 2013, he discovered “no one had actioned” his original complaint of two months earlier, but was advised to ignore the posts and emails.

Dr Spacey then informed the university he considered the online activity breached the university’s harassment policy, and amounted to a defamation of character. He wanted the university to take civil proceedings against the perpetrators and seek damages, as well as take disciplinary action against the students involved.

He was advised he needed to know the identity of the people responsible for the posts before making a formal complaint, the ERA said.

Dr Spacey later identified those he believed were behind the nasty posts, and laid a formal complaint with the Student Discipline Committee in November 2013.

The ERA heard he was told the body could not deal with the complaint and referred to the university’s harassment and bullying policy. He wrote to the university lodging a formal dispute, in which he described the bullying as “extremely hurtful, quite vicious, and specifically directed at him”.

Dr Spacey said it was “personally distressing”, and he felt there was a lack of support from the university. It was two months before the university responded, and decided to treat it as an employment relationship problem.

A university spokeswoman said the university believed Dr Spacey had been offered adequate support and it was unsure why Dr Spacey thought the attacks were supported by staff.

“Considerable time was spent investigating the allegations of cyber-bullying raised by Dr Spacey. No evidence was found of university staff being involved.”

The spokeswoman said there was a delay in responding to Dr Spacey’s formal dispute, filed in December 2013, because the concerns took time to investigate and the time of year meant that some of the relevant staff were on holiday.

The ERA found Dr Spacey had raised the issue within the 90-day timeframe, giving him permission to pursue his claim. It also gave him the go-ahead for two of his other grievances – that of failing to provide information about advancement, and using different rules to assess performance – but ruled against the remainder of his claims.

The authority directed the two parties to attend mediation to try to resolve the dispute.