Friday, July 31, 2009

Chilling: The 'the vast majority of complaints made against school staff have little or no foundation'

Must-reading: a microcosm of the problems faced generally by those falsely accused of rape.

Ruined by the lies of children: The teachers destroyed by the false allegations of pupils who know they're untouchable

By Tom RawstorneLast updated at 1:36 AM on 20th July 2009

Asked to drop into his local police station for a 'quick chat', Matthew Wren was only too happy to oblige. A few days earlier, the 38-year-old history teacher was attacked at his school by a pupil who punched him in the chest.

Mr Wren, a man with an unblemished 15-year teaching career, reported the assault and simply assumed that the officers had a few questions to ask him. What happened next came completely out of the blue.

'It turned out I'd basically been tricked into coming to the station,' Mr Wren explains. 'Instead of a chat, I was arrested, finger-printed, swabbed for DNA samples and then locked in a cell for four hours. The police were brutal and insensitive - I couldn't believe what was happening to me.'

After his release on bail, Mr Wren was suspended from his job - and the stress and humiliation of the situation almost destroyed his marriage.

Even the subsequent announcement that no criminal charges were to be laid against him brought little relief: Mr Wren discovered that details of his arrest would remain on his record.

'Once a pupil makes these allegations the whole machinery rolls into motion,' he says. 'It seems a child's word is believed no matter what. No thought is given to the teacher.

Those feelings of abandonment, betrayal and injustice will resonate with many of his colleagues across the country.

According to figures collected by the Government, more than 4,000 complaints are made against teachers and school support staff every year.

Of these allegations, less than one in 20 result in a criminal conviction. While a reassuringly small percentage, the figures offer little consolation for those whose reputations are needlessly dragged through the mud.

Once an allegation is made, a teacher is suspended and banned from talking to colleagues - effectively, assumed to be guilty until proven innocent. If subsequently cleared of wrongdoing, his or her career may still be blighted.

Even the taxpayer suffers: the cost of providing cover for a suspended teacher is about £30,000 a year.

But what is perhaps most worrying of all is that pupils seem very aware of their power.
One child of just seven recently threatened to ruin a headmaster's career by saying: 'I will get you suspended.'

And it's clear that unscrupulous parents are playing the system in a bid to win compensation from local education authorities.

Now teachers are demanding change. They want anonymity for those accused and say heads should deal with more complaints themselves, avoiding the unnecessary involvement of police and outside authorities. A growing lobby of MPs agrees.

'A lot of children know their rights but not their responsibilities - they will tell their teachers: "I can get you sacked"'

'Allegations proven to be true must be punished,' said MP Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, which this week published a report on the issue.

'But the vast majority of complaints made against school staff have little or no foundation. My committee heard shocking evidence about the treatment of accused staff and the devastating impact unfounded allegations of misconduct can have.'

And those who suffer are often the most upstanding and selfless members of our society.

In September 2003, Judi Sunderland, now 60, decided to take a job at the Immanuel Church Of England Community College in Bradford - a school struggling with poor attendance and discipline problems.

Her husband Brian had recently suffered a stroke, forcing him to retire from his job as a special needs co-ordinator.

'He wasn't expected to live and the experience made me re-evaluate my own life,' she says. 'I decided that I wanted to do something for my local community.'

But three months into the job, those aspirations were dashed. Hearing an altercation in a corridor near to her office, she found a boy of 13 arguing with a teaching assistant.

'I crossed the corridor and stood in front of him, with my right hand on the wall to get his attention,' she said. 'His reaction was to slide down the wall until he was sitting in the corner. He kicked out his legs so I had to step back. Then he pushed himself back up the wall and got to his feet.

'I told him he either had to do what he'd been told or come to my office. His response was to kick me hard on my left shin and to call me a "f****** fat c***" and other unrepeatable names as he tried to run away.

I grabbed hold of him from behind, in a bear hug, just to restrain him. I wasn't holding him so tight that he couldn't pull away - which, in fact, he did. The other children were goading him, saying: "Go on, hit her! We'll be your witnesses."

'I calmly got hold of him again and he started kicking out at my legs. He spread-eagled himself at the doorway to my office and then, when I gently removed his hands from the door, he walked inside.

'I thought it was all over - he'd had his little tantrum. He sat quietly in a chair, while I sent someone to get a senior member of staff.'


The incident lasted a matter of seconds. But the fallout from it continues to be felt six years on.
Within days, Judi was informed that the boy had made an allegation of assault to the police.

Stunned to the core, she was signed off sick.

A five-hour police interview followed when she was told that the boy claimed she had grabbed him by the throat, slammed him against the wall, scratched his wrist and kneed him in the back.

Judi was suspended, named in a report in the local press and then had to wait until June 2005 for the case to come to court. When it did, the trial collapsed within ten minutes.

Not only was the boy unwilling to testify, but new forensic evidence proved Judi could not have been responsible for some of the his bruises.

But although the judge told her that she could leave court 'without a stain on your character', that would prove not to be the case.

The school carried out its own inquiry and a year later, in July 2006, the panel ruled against her by a two-to-one majority, deciding that she had committed an unlawful act.

Despite this, they found that there were mitigating circumstances and that she could have her job back. Not wanting such a blemish on her record, Judi appealed. The appeal failed and she resigned.

But still that was not the end of it. Three of Judi's grandchildren regularly appear on stage, in adverts and TV dramas. Legally, they have to be accompanied by an adult to castings and performances and anyone but a parent needs a licence to do this. And so Judi applied to the local education authority for permission to act as their official chaperone. She was turned down - the reason being that her record showed she assaulted a pupil.

Judi has no right of appeal and to this day cannot comprehend how a case that failed in a criminal court can continue to blight her life.

'For a teacher to be accused of assaulting a child is the worst thing that can happen,' she said. There is a definite culture among children "to get teacher done". But I feel very bitter towards the school and the governors who failed to support me.'

It is a point taken up by teacher's union the NASUWT, which has campaigned on the issue for almost two decades. During that time, they have kept a record of the number of their members accused of physical or sexual assaults. In 1991, there were 44, a figure that rose to 108 in 1996 and 192 in 2007.

Of those 192, 173 resulted in no further action being taken against the individual, eight are unresolved and just 11 ever reached court. Of those, only seven resulted in a conviction.

Why are the numbers rising? Chris Keates, the union's general secretary, thinks she knows why.

'A lot of children know their rights but not their responsibilities,' she says. 'They will tell their teachers: "I can get you sacked. You can't come near me, you can't touch me." Making an allegation against a teacher is a retaliatory act.'

She and other teachers' leaders believe that anonymity should be given to the accused teacher, in much the same way as it is given to children or rape victims. This would prevent reputations being damaged before even a prima facie case is established.

Secondly, there are calls for those who make unfounded allegations to be brought to book - to deter others. Even an unproven allegation can be highly damaging. It's not just localised gossip that is the problem. If the accused is arrested by police, the matter will show up on their record in subsequent Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks, making it difficult for them to move jobs.
This was of huge concern to Matthew Wren. The teacher, who lives in County Durham, resigned from his job in the wake of the allegations relating to the incident in March 2008, thoroughly fed up with the way that he was treated.

He then launched a High Court battle to prove that his arrest had been unlawful and that details of his arrest should be wiped from his record. In May this year, he won, Northumbria Police accepting they had been in the wrong.

The hope is that now MPs have acknowledged the extent of the problem, the Government will act. It cannot happen soon enough. Every week good teachers are being lost to the profession.
Jane Watts, a teacher with 30 years' experience, is one of them.

She was suspended in September 2007 from her job at Duke Street Primary School in Chorley, Lancs, after it was alleged she had smacked a five-year-old girl on the hand.

Despite being cleared by the police, the school and Lancashire County Council pressed on with their own investigation and sacked her.

Although she won the right to return to work in a subsequent appeal, the accusation of gross misconduct was to remain on her record. Suffering from stress and anxiety, and concerned she would be constantly under suspicion, Jane was too ill to return to work. Now, instead of adding to the 20 years she has given to the school, Jane has retired.

Andrew Kidd, head teacher at Duke Street Primary School, confirmed that a member of his staff was dismissed for misconduct, reinstated - and then dismissed again for 'non-attendance'. But he insisted that 'the original finding of misconduct was correct'.

But like Judi Sunderland and Matthew Wren, Jane feels let down by the authorities. 'It was automatically assumed I was guilty,' she says. 'For an honest person who has never been in trouble to be put through that was disgraceful. The worst part by far was being arrested, although to be fair the police were fine with me.'

'I was told I was suspended and that I couldn't even speak to my friends. I went from being an experienced, confident teacher to someone who didn't even like going out of the house. Chorley isn't a big place and I felt that everyone knew about me. They totally shattered my confidence.'
And she adds: 'I think it's really unbelievable that a teacher can be treated in this way - nobody should have to go though what I did ever again.

Link: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1200746/Ruined-lies-children-The-teachers-destroyed-false-allegations-pupils-know-theyre-untouchable.html