'Nobody should go through this'

August 17, 2007

David Harker talks exclusively to Melanie Newman about his four years of harassment by an ex-student.

A lecturer who endured a four-year stalking campaign by a former student has called for universities to adopt a national harassment policy.

David Harker, senior lecturer at the University of the West of England, said that a lack of clear formal procedures meant that the student's obsessive behaviour was allowed to escalate. He spoke exclusively to The Times Higher after the conviction last week of Sandra Smith, who was found to have breached a restraining order preventing her from contacting Dr Harker.

She will be sentenced following a psychiatric report.

Ms Smith, a mature biomedical science student, met Dr Harker, senior lecturer in applied science, in 2000, when he was her first-year tutor at UWE.

Although during her second year she began to make comments about her private life, it was not until she resigned from a work placement in 2003 that her approaches became alarming.

"At more or less the same time as she resigned her placement, her daughter was diagnosed with a serious illness," Dr Harker said. "That's when the visits and the letters to me started."

After letters detailing what Dr Harker describes as "extremely personal information", he informed his line manager and they began logging her contact.

Frustrated after being turned down for a project under Dr Harker's supervision, Ms Smith began telephoning Dr Harker at home. "It seemed to be some kind of erotomania: she imagined that we had a future together and that I was only holding back because she was a student," he said. "She would habitually put the phone down on my wife if she answered or would apparently be hyperventilating and distraught so that my wife would pass her over to me. Her tenor would change completely as soon as I was on the phone."

With his line manager's knowledge, Dr Harker tried to hold his former student at bay for almost two years without any formal intervention from the university. "I don't blame my manager, but I now realise that by trying to sit out the problem we were allowing her behaviour to embed," Dr Harker said. By the time he asked his dean to intervene in 2005, he believes Ms Smith was already beyond reason. "The dean wrote to her in terms that would have sent me weeping to the toilets, and she wrote back quibbling over a reference to her marital status, enclosing her divorce papers," he said.

The harassment continued and the university invoked disciplinary procedures. It concluded that Ms Smith would be allowed to graduate with a diploma, so long as she withdrew from the university, which she agreed to do.

When she continued to pursue her former tutor, he went to the police. "The university no longer had jurisdiction and I just wanted it to stop," he explained. Ms Smith was cautioned in January 2006.

"In May, she left a book at the university for me on the psychology of love; in June, for two consecutive weeks she left materials under the windscreen wipers of my car," he recalled. "I felt very threatened then. I felt it was building up to something. She left a picture of herself with a copy of her diploma, torn to pieces."

Avon Magistrates' Court imposed a restraining order on Ms Smith, but she was soon telephoning Dr Harker at work again and took a job in the university canteen.

She then approached Dr Harker while he was sitting in his car near his home. "She crossed the street and stood in front of the car so that I couldn't drive off," he said. "She said, 'I'm sorry', but I'd heard that so many times before."

Bristol Crown Court found that the approach was an intentional breach of the restraining order.

While Dr Harker is relieved that his persecutor may finally have been stopped, the stress of the past four years has taken its toll on his health. He now has high blood pressure and has had to take time off work.

"Now I just want to make sure nobody else goes through this," he said.

Universities should have a clear policy who staff should report incidents to, and a shorter time-frame for action, he said. "If I'd been a female with a persistent male stalker I'm fairly sure the matter would have been dealt with more rigorously."

A spokesperson for UWE said the university was updating its dignity at work policies by adding guidelines about harassment of staff by students.

melanie.newman@thes.co.uk

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