Sunday 25 February 2018

Ex-pupil sues school after being wrongly accused of extorting fellow student after garda sting

Lydia O'Hara
Lydia O'Hara

A GARDA handed a €20 note to a 15-year-old old schoolgirl and told her to get some phone credit for herself after telling her she was owed "a very big apology" for being wrongly accused of extorting the same €20 from another pupil, the High Court heard.

Lydia O'Hara was a Junior Cert student of Scoil Chriost Ri in Portlaoise in March 2004 when the court heard a nightmare began in which she was a victim of an allegation made up by another student who claimed money had been regularly extorted from her by three girls at break-time in the school bike shed.

Lydia O Hara (25) of Portlaoise, Co. Laois
Pic: Collins Courts
Lydia O Hara (25) of Portlaoise, Co. Laois Pic: Collins Courts

Ms O'Hara (25), a mother-of-one from Portlaoise, is suing the school board of management and the Garda Commissioner for defamation, false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional and physical harm.

The school issued a number of apologies to Ms O'Hara including a lenghty one read out at assembly, the court heard.

It is however denying the claims and says it has to manage the school where a serious allegation is made in order to protect the interests of students. 

The gardai deny she was detained and say they must investigate a serious allegation like extortion.

Ms O'Hara told the court as a result of the false allegation, she had tried to take her own life, self-harmed, suffered from panic attacks in public, had to undergo counselling and is still on medication for depression.

She said she had been a happy bubbly girl, involved in basketball and going out with her friends before the incident but after says she became a hermit.  "I just had no will to live".

The court heard a first-year pupil's mother had written to the school alleging she had been the victim of extortion for around six months and that it involved around €1,000.  She also made a complaint to the gardai.

Martin Giblin SC, with Cormac Quinn BL, (instructed by David Walley and Co) said the school allowed the gardai to come in to set up a "sting" operation in which a marked €20 note was put into the school bike shed but there was a failure to observe who had gone to the shed at 11am that day.

Ms O'Hara, who found herself the innocent victim of this sting, was at that time outside the principal's office waiting to get permission to go home early as she was not feeling well.

Ms O'Hara told the court the school secretary she would find the principal, Helen O'Donnell, out in the yard.  She left her schoolbag on the floor outside the office while she went off looking for her.

She met the vice-principal on the way and was told to return to the office and someone would be back to her shortly.

The bell for class rang and the principal, Ms O'Donnell, approached her and asked her her name and then asked her to come into her office with her.

She also asked was that her schoolbag on the floor and told her to pick it up.  When she did, there was a folded €20 note underneath and she was told to pick that up too and hand it to the principal.

At that point, two plain clothes gardai, John Healy and Fiona McGrath, followed them into the office.

Garda Healy asked her did she know what was going on and she said she did not.

They told her there was an allegation that the €20 was extorted from another student but they would not say who it was.  "I was just dumbfounded, I thought it was all a joke but they said no Ms O'Hara we are very serious".

When Garda Healy read her rights, telling her anything she says may be used against her, she knew she was in trouble from what she had seen on TV.  "I felt smothered and suffocated in a room with three people in authority", she said.

Her parents were called and they brought her home.

Later that day, she said Garda Healy came to the O'Hara home.  "He just looked at me and said young lady you are owed a very big apology, the girl is after admitting to making it all up".

"I just burst out crying and said I told you I did not do it."

Garda Healy then handed her the marked €20 note and "told me to buy some phone credit out of it," she said.

Some days later an apology was read out before school assembly but it just referred to rumours about her which were not true, she said.

Later a more extensive apology was read out at assembly, an apology was also sent by the board of management to her parents.

The hearing continues before a jury and Mr Justice John Hedigan.

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