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Principal calls Teaching Council reprimand ‘scandalous’

A school principal has been admonished for poor professional performance over his failure to notify the parents of a young autistic pupil of an allegation that their son had been mistreated by a teacher.

A major legal row broke out at a fitness-to-teach inquiry after lawyers for the principal claimed the finding was “scandalous”.

Counsel for the principal, Helen Callanan SC, called on the Teaching Council’s disciplinary committee to withdraw its finding that the principal had failed over a period of 19 weeks to inform the parents of the boy that a complaint had been made against one of the school’s teachers over his alleged mistreatment of their son.

Ms Callanan claimed a member of the Teaching Council had attended the inquiry in the company of the boy’s mother.

Despite her objections, the inquiry imposed a sanction of admonishment on the principal which it claimed should be regarded as “a firm reprimand”.

Ms Callanan complained at a public hearing that there was a perceived bias with the “derogatory” decision against her client.

She highlighted how the chief executive of the National Parents’ Council (Primary), Áine Lynch – who is also a member of the Teaching Council – had appeared “shoulder to shoulder” in front of the committee with the person whose complaint had led to the inquiry.

“It is an absolute abuse of fair procedure,” said Ms Callanan who claimed the ruling of poor professional performance was “scandalous”.

During tense exchanges, she also questioned when the Teaching Council had found out that the boy’s mother knew about the complaint against the teacher in advance of being informed about it by the principal.

In a separate but related ruling, the inquiry found the allegations against the teacher unproven.

None of the parties can be publicly identified on direction of the committee which conducted the inquiry over six days since last November.

Ms Callanan also signalled that the principal would seek to challenge the finding in the High Court if it was not withdrawn.

However, counsel for the Teaching Council, Eoghan O’Sullivan BL, claimed the application to have the inquiry’s finding withdrawn was “improper” and any suggestion that Ms Lynch had influenced the committee’s decision was “disrespectful”.

Teacher cleared of alleged inappropriate treatment

The legal row emerged after the teacher was cleared of a series of incidents of alleged inappropriate treatment of the nine-year-old, non-verbal pupil on two dates in February 2019 including claims that he “reefed” earphones off the boy’s head in class.

However, it found the principal guilty of poor professional performance over a delay in notifying the boy’s parents about the complaint against the teacher.

It also concluded that the principal had breached the Code of Professional Conduct for Teachers in relation to the welfare of students and communications.

Delivering its findings, the committee’s chairperson, Seán O’Neill, acknowledged there was a conflict in evidence between a special needs assistant (SNA) and the teacher about the alleged incident involving the headphones on 5 February 2019.

Mr O’Neill said the allegation against the teacher could not be proven beyond reasonable doubt.

He said it was unfortunate that much of the evidence involved personal attacks on the SNA and the boy’s mother with suggestions that they had made a malicious complaint against the teacher because of their close relationship.

The allegation that the teacher shouted inappropriately at the boy on the same occasion was also not proven.

Mr O’Neill noted that several witnesses had given evidence that the teacher speaks naturally in a loud strong voice and there was “a fine line” between that and shouting.

The teacher, who had denied all allegations, was also cleared of claims that he had inappropriately pulled the boy off the floor on February 26, 2019 due to a lack of conclusive evidence.

An allegation that the teacher had not provided sufficient information in a journal about an incident in which the boy hit his head off a mirror and had failed to phone his parents about what had happened was also deemed unproven.

The committee said the teacher had provided a comprehensive account of how the boy hit his head with no significant detail omitted, while there was no specific requirement that he should have phoned the boy’s parents.

However, the committee rejected an application by Ms Callanan that the teacher be allowed to address the inquiry on its findings.

Ms Callanan said it was unfair that someone who had been cleared of any wrongdoing and had endured “a horrendous experience” over allegations dating back five years was being “silenced.”

‘Significant and serious matter’

Outlining the finding against the principal, Mr O’Neill said it was a significant and serious matter that he had failed to report an exceptionally serious issue relating to the safety and welfare of a non-verbal pupil in a timely way.

He claimed it represented a serious failing to meet the standard of competence to be reasonably expected of a teacher.

The principal maintained that he had relied on a Department of Education circular on managing disciplinary processes which precluded him from sharing information about the complaint but had notified the boy’s parents after seeking advice from Tusla and the Irish Primary Principals’ Network.

However, Mr O’Neill said the committee was not persuaded that the principal had interpreted the circular correctly and also noted he had subsequently received legal advice that he should inform the boy’s parents about the complaint.

The chairperson said it was a striking feature of the case that a once strong relationship between the boy’s parents and the school had deteriorated radically in early 2019 and appeared “toxic”.

Mr O’Neill said the committee was unable to conclude to what extent it was linked to the failure of the principal to inform the boy’s parents about the complaint against the teacher.

‘Not acceptable to run a complaint process for five years’

In an address to the hearing, the principal observed pointedly that the Teaching Council had taken five years to come to a ruling about his delay of 19 weeks.

The principal said he could not agree with the inquiry’s finding against him and he expressed great concern about the future of the teaching profession given the treatment of teachers who were the subject of a complaint to the Teaching Council.

“It is simply not acceptable to run a complaint process for five years,” he remarked.

The principal said he would have expected to face a disciplinary inquiry if he had not followed a departmental circular rather than because he had upheld its direction.

He said he had given his “heart and soul” to his school for over 25 years during which time he had never been the subject of any other complaint.

The principal said he believed it would have been dismissed by the Teaching Council if the regulatory body had been aware that the boy’s mother knew about the complaint before he had informed her about the matter.

He claimed no teacher should have to go through a process where they were faced with “confusion and inaccuracies” in a ruling.

The inquiry also heard he had suffered heart problems which he believed was a direct result of the complaint against him.

The principal, who was supported with testimony from six character witnesses, said he always did his utmost to uphold the highest professional standards.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the committee rejected the application by Ms Callanan that it should quash its ruling.

Mr O’Neill claimed the argument that it had been influenced by Ms Lynch’s presence was “unjustified”.

He expressed concern that the principal remained adamant he had done nothing wrong and had rejected the committee’s findings, despite having originally shown insight into his wrongdoing in correspondence with the Teaching Council.

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