University apologises after ‘inadequate’ response to domestic violence case

Allison Smith released photographs of her injuries SUS-170118-115247001
Allison Smith released photographs of her injuries SUS-170118-115247001

The new vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex has apologised to a former student over the institution’s handling of a domestic violence case involving a senior lecturer.

The case involved former Sussex student Allison Smith and media and communications lecturer Lee Salter. The pair met at a university-organised event in September 2014 and started a relationship.

University of Sussex (Photograph: N Chadwick/Creative Commons Licence)

University of Sussex (Photograph: N Chadwick/Creative Commons Licence)

In September 2015, the university was informed of a domestic violence incident by a member of Smith’s family; an incident Salter was later convicted for in June 2016. He was handed a 22-week prison sentence suspended for 18 months, and a restraining order, after being found guilty of assault by beating and causing criminal damage. He is appealing against his conviction and a hearing is set to take place in April.

But Salter continued to work at the university after his arrest, and the institution was widely criticised when it emerged that the lecturer had continued to teach until he was convicted; it was only after his conviction that Salter was suspended, and he resigned soon after.

Professor Adam Tickell, the new vice-chancellor at the University of Sussex, commissioned a review into the case on his first day in the top job, on September 1, 2016.

The review was taken on by one of the UK’s leading researchers in the field of domestic violence, Durham University’s Professor Nicole Westmarland. Her report was published today (January 17), and identifies areas of poor and good practice at the university, as well as recommendations for improvement.

Professor Adam Tickell, the new vice-chancellor at the University of Sussex

Professor Adam Tickell, the new vice-chancellor at the University of Sussex

Professor Tickell said: “Our foremost concern remains with Allison Smith, who has been incredibly courageous in sharing her story. I have spoken with Allison to let her know my personal views and it is only right that I am now able to formally, and publicly, acknowledge that the university’s response to her case was inadequate. Consequently, on behalf of the University of Sussex, I am very sorry for the failings identified in Professor Westmarland’s report. I am grateful to Allison for taking part in the review. We will continue to offer her whatever support she needs.

“In the short time I have been at Sussex, I have become aware of how upset many members of our community were to hear about this case and I want to publicly recognise those feelings and views. There are important lessons from Professor Westmarland’s report about our procedures and cultural expectations, and I am committed to the University addressing these issues. Students and staff at the University have a right to feel safe and supported, and we will be introducing a series of major initiatives in response to the report’s recommendations.”

Ms Allison Smith said: “I am pleased there has been such a thorough review into what happened in my case. My primary motivation is that this does not happen to anyone else. I fully support and agree with all of Professor Westmarland’s recommendations and am pleased to see the university plan to put major changes in place. All the people that came forward and gave feedback have already made a huge difference in speaking out against violence. I will never forget the kindness shown to me once the case became public, and I deeply thank everyone who has supported and expressed care for me.”

Professor Westmarland criticised the university for failing to communicate with Ms Smith in ‘a professional manner’ and found that the university failed in its duty of pastoral care towards Ms Smith.

Former University of Sussex student Allison Smith has spoken out about domestic violence SUS-170118-115257001

Former University of Sussex student Allison Smith has spoken out about domestic violence SUS-170118-115257001

Salter was risk assessed by the university after he was charged, but was not considered to be a risk ‘generally’, as the assault was in the context of an ‘intimate partner relationship’, and Ms Smith was no longer a student the university.

After Salter’s sentencing in July the university started a disciplinary procedure, but the lecturer was not suspended until August 3. Professor Westmarland notes that ‘the impeding media attention seems to have been one factor related to this decision’. Salter resigned on August 13, one day after the case was reported by a national newspaper.

Despite the criticisms, two members of university staff were praised in the report.

Professor Westmarland said the head of the university’s Student Services provided weekly emotional support to Ms Smith, from the time of the disclosure until the trial. The support was described as ‘subtle, unassuming and discreet’ with the member of staff demonstrating a ‘good understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence’. The same member of staff was ‘the only person to pro-actively try to seek advice’ from police over whether Salter was a risk to others.

Another member of staff was praised for speaking out on behalf of other female members of staff in discussions over the response of the university to the case, and about domestic violence generally.

The review also states that other members of the university community has experienced abuse or harassment, but felt unable to speak out and that ‘there were no avenues for creating change’.

Professor Tickell said: “I want to assure those people who have raised past issues, and any others who may want to come forward, that we will immediately look into their matter and carry out whatever appropriate action is necessary. Abuse, of any kind, will not be tolerated at this university.

“It is vitally important that we address the systemic gap in our institution’s practices and, alongside this, create a culture of transparency, respect and responsibility. I will work with the university’s leadership team and experts in the field to put in place the necessary steps to bring about this critical change so that our students and staff feel comfortable about speaking up, know they will be listened to and issues will be addressed.

“I am committed to ensuring our staff are appropriately equipped to respond to difficult situations which might arise and to be able to offer the support our students and staff may require. It is imperative that we create the kind of working environment in which our staff feel empowered to make the right decisions for the welfare of students and other members of staff.”

The University of Sussex is now set to implement a number of recommendations set out in the case review.

Professor Westmarland said: “I am heartened to see the raft of measures the University plan to implement following the failures identified in my report. This case has clearly demonstrated that violence and abuse, perpetrated by staff or by students, should not be dismissed as purely a private matter. ‘Health and Safety’ should not be limited to issues such as medical first aid and fire safety but understood much more broadly - including violence and abuse perpetrated within the university community.”

Professor Tickell said: “We are not proud of this recent history at Sussex but, in going through this difficult period, I hope that other universities can learn from this case and we can all build on the work that is being undertaken by Universities UK to scrutinise and address these important issues.”

To read the report and recommendations, click here.