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Alison Smith speaks out on domestic abuse scandal: “Students will feel safe”

Freya Marshall Payne and Daniel Green

The Independent revealed in August that Lee Salter, a senior lecturer in the Media department at the University of Sussex, had been convicted of beating a now former student with whom he was in a relationship at the time, despite which the university allowed him to carry on teaching.

Since then, Sussex has announced that Salter is no longer employed by the university and on his first day as Vice-Chancellor, Adam Tickell announced an independent review into the university’s handling of the case. In an email to students and staff, Prof Tickell said: ‘[the review] will be led by Professor Nicole Westmarland, from Durham University and one of the UK’s leading researchers in the field of domestic violence.

‘We will publish the report and make any necessary changes to our approach and policies. I also plan to appoint a Deputy Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Equalities and Diversity, who will report directly to me, and who will ensure that we embed a commitment to these values in everything that we do.’

The Badger reached out to Allison Smith, the then Sussex student who was a victim of domestic assault. Asked how she felt now that Lee Salter was no longer in the employment of the university and a review had been launched into the handling of the case, she said: “It’s difficult to say exactly how I feel at the moment, it’s mixed emotions. I feel relieved that no other student at Sussex will have to go through what I went though, but I also feel completely drained from the whole process. I should not have had to discuss such personal feelings publicly, but it has meant students will feel safe and that was the most important thing to me.”

Salter was convicted of assault by beating and causing criminal damage to Ms Smith’s belongings in Brighton Magistrates’ Court in mid-July. During the violent attack, he punched Ms Smith in the face, knocked her out and stamped on her, and poured salt in her eyes.

Salter pleaded not guilty at court but received a 22-week jail sentence suspended for 18 months, an order to complete 150 hours of unpaid work and a restraining order.  He has since lodged an appeal.

The independent review was launched by the university as a result of concerns raised about the support which was offered to Ms Smith. When The Independent broke the story, they pointed to domestic abuse charity Refuge indicating concerns that Ms Smith  ‘was not offered the degree of support listed as available in the university’s own policy statement’.

The National Union of Students also called for a full review of welfare policies and said that Sussex ought to apologize for what they said showed ‘a total disregard for women’s safety’.

In a statement addressing the independent review, Prof. Tickell said: “I believe that it is crucial that our campus community understands what happened on this matter.  We can then take the appropriate actions to ensure that in the future we do absolutely everything we can to meet the wellbeing of our students.

“I know that staff and students at Sussex feel deeply about this issue and as part of the review, Professor Westmarland will be providing opportunities for our whole community to share their opinions as well as talking to a range of people who were close to the case.  Ms Smith, who has already been incredibly brave in telling her story, will also be contributing to the review.

“I have given my commitment to publish Professor Westmarland’s report, which we expect to be available in early November.  The review will identify aspects of poor and good practice in the handling of this case and Professor Westmarland will make recommendations as to how we can improve our University’s future policy and practice. 

“I believe strongly that this institution should learn lessons from this case, and rectify any failings, and I’m committed to ensuring that Sussex does what is right for our community.”

Asked for her thoughts on the independent inquiry, Ms Smith told The Badger: ‘I was really glad to hear from the new Vice-Chancellor about the independent inquiry, and how he would like for me to be involved. His positive response has made me feel more optimistic that the inquiry will identify what went wrong in the handling of the case.’

She continued: ‘I’m sure that there will be recommendations made to improve future policy and practice from the outcome.

‘Nicole Westmarland, a professor of Criminology from Durham University will conduct the review and she has a long history of working with women’s organisations, so I have no doubt that her knowledge and experience will help bring positive changes.

‘Lecturers, parents, students were all concerned about what happened so I’m glad to know that this review will be published for all to access. I have many questions about what went wrong, but I’m sure that by working with the university I will finally get some closure. I really hope that perhaps other institutions will start reviewing their policies surrounding assault and harassment on campus. There’s a lot of work to do as harassment and abuse is widespread, but very much hidden, so it is vital that institutions work to make sure their procedures put the welfare of their students first.’

Ms Smith told The Badger that, since she told The Independent about her assault, she has felt far more supported. ‘I felt completely isolated and alone for 10 months, so to go from that, to feeling cared for and supported by Sussex staff and the public has been hugely reaffirming’, she said.

She added: ‘The petition [to sack Salter, started by a Sussex student], the outrage, it gave me and many others a voice, and helped me get through another difficult time. I recently received a copy of a letter with over 300 signatures of support from staff at sussex, it made me, for the first time in a long time, feel cared for.

‘It gave me strength to make sure that I see the inquiry through and it gave me some hope for starting to rebuild my life. To see some that taught me on the list showing their support reminded me of how proud I was of the MA I gained at Sussex and how much it meant to me. I plan to visit the university soon to reclaim the space that I lost, and help the university with the investigation in any way that I can’.

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