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Friday 22 August 2014

Special needs assistant wins €255k in 'severe' bullying claim

Published 09/05/2014 | 16:10

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Una Ruffley, of Newbridge, Co. Kildare, pictured leaving the Four Courts after she was awarded over €255,000 damages
Una Ruffley, of Newbridge, Co. Kildare, pictured leaving the Four Courts after she was awarded over €255,000 damages

A special needs assistant has been awarded €255,000 by the High Court for bullying and harassment by the school she worked in.

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Mr Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill described the "severe" and "unmerited" treatment of Una Ruffley by the board of management of St Anne's National School in the Curragh, Kildare, as persistent inappropriate behaviour which wholly undermined her dignity at work.

He said principal Pauline Dempsey's account of the complaint against Ms Ruffley to a board meeting was "almost certainly untrue, highly biased, coloured, and grossly and unfairly damnified" Ms Ruffley who had worked in the school for 14 years.

He also found it reprehensible that Ms Dempsey had  "trumped up" an additional complaint against her.

The judge said the board of the school, which provides education for children with special needs, failed to properly respond to Ms Ruffley's efforts to have the matter dealt with through internal disciplinary procedures and left her with no option but to take legal action.

Ms Ruffley had suffered definite and identifiable psychiatric injury as a result of her treatment and continues to, and will continue, to suffer significantly into the future, he said.

He awarded her €140,276 for loss of past and future earnings and €115,000 in general damages.

The judge said the case arose out of an incident on September 14, 2009, when Ms Ruffley was with a pupil in the school's "sensory room" which is used for one-to-one development of a child's sensory perception through music, vibration, movement, light and colour.

At issue in this case was whether it was normal practice that the door to the room should be locked or just closed as it generally accepted that the sensory programme should be done without interruption.

The judge said he accepted evidence of Ms Ruffley and other special needs assistants (SNAs) that it was general practice at the time to lock the door.

When the pupil Ms Ruffley was dealing with that day fell asleep, she phoned the class teacher who told her to allow him sleep for another 20 minutes.   The child, who had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,  had a tendency to run from room to room when equipment was being set up, the court heard.

The principal, Ms Dempsey, tried to gain entry three times before Ms Ruffley opened the door which later gave rise to disciplinary moves against her.

The judge said he was satisfied from the evidence it was general practice to lock the door at the time. For child protection/health and safety reasons, it was accepted the door should not be locked, he said.

It was extraordinary that up to the day of this incident no issue had arisen about the locking of the door even though the school had a comprehensive safety statement, he said.

Following the incident, Ms Dempsey brought Ms Ruffley into a meeting warning her of disciplinary action but later wrote to her there would not be any action and a series of procedures were being put in place to ensure it did not happen again including a three-month review of her (Ruffley's) performance.

Difficulties arose later about the filling in of a form relating to the review of her work which  then led Ms Dempsey to wrongly characterise it as a "falsification" of the form by the SNA, the judge said.

Ms Dempsey then brought the matter of the door locking incident, and of the alleged failure of Ms Ruffley to improve her performance, to a board of management meeting which recommended the SNA receive a formal warning and that her next salary increment be deferred.

The judge said while Ms Dempsey told the court she outlined the full history of the matter to the board,  he did not think it (board) could have reached the adverse conclusions it did unless it had been "grossly misled" by the principal about the true circumstances.

A month after the board decision, as the school was about to break for Christmas 2009, Ms Dempsey told Ms Ruffley she was to get a formal warning about the door locking incident.  She was given a letter in the New Year saying, that as a result of an investigation, if there was a further breach of school policy, there could be further action, up to and including dismissal.

The judge said the suggestion there had been an investigation was simply not correct.  Ms Ruffley had been subjected to disciplinary sanction of a severe kind which was unmerited.

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