Tuesday 19 June 2018

'I was in fear of being struck... I felt vulnerable in my own home' - Principal opens up about 18 months of harassment by angry dad

Julie Thomas, the head teacher of Clandeboye Primary School
Julie Thomas, the head teacher of Clandeboye Primary School

Brett Campbell

A school principal who was harassed for 18 months by the father of a pupil who she was prevented from expelling says she will remain vigilant after he was given a suspended sentence.

Gerard Knight (38), of Cayman Drive, Bangor, was handed a four month prison sentence which was suspended for three years by a judge at Newtownards Magistrate's Court yesterday after being convicted of verbally abusing Julie Thomas, the head teacher of Clandeboye Primary School over a prolonged period of time.

The father-of-two had contested the harassment charge, but the judge said the case was "the easiest I have come across in terms of credibility".

A restraining order was also imposed on Knight.

The court heard the problems began after the board of governors temporarily banned Knight from the school premises following allegations that he had pinned a child to a wall inside the school premises following an incident which involved his son.

Police investigated the alleged assault but no charges were brought against Knight, and he was allowed to access the school again.

When Ms Thomas, who has been principal of the school for the past five years, attempted to hand him a copy of the parent's code of conduct, he refused to accept it.

Later in the school year, Knight became verbally aggressive when his eldest child was suspended.

Ms Thomas told the court yesterday that Knight shouted in the school: "If this school was run by a man it would be better." She added: "I was very intimidated ... I was in fear of being struck."

The principal sobbed in the witness box as she recounted how Knight cycled along her street and stopped outside her home one Saturday morning in May 2017.

She described how he returned soon after and looked straight into her living room before moving away again.

On other occasions, Knight shouted and swore at the principal's husband as he picked up their daughter from primary school and posted photographs on Facebook which he had taken of Ms Thomas standing outside the school - he also posted screenshots of correspondence they had exchanged and accused her of lying to police and discriminating against children with special needs.

The judge said the Facebook entries showed that Knight was "irrational to the point of paranoia".

Knight insisted he was "not an aggressive person" and said he had apologised in writing for questioning the principal's ability to do her job based on her gender.

A defence lawyer claimed his client had no memory of stopping outside Ms Thomas' house and denied shouting at her husband while he was picking up their daughter, but the judge dismissed the idea of him coincidentally stopping outside the house as "a lie".

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph outside court, Ms Thomas, who now carries protection devices issued by the PSNI, welcomed the sentence but said she will remain vigilant in the days ahead.

"This has taken a toll on my health and on my relationship with my husband and daughter," she said.

"On occasions my little girl would hug me and say: 'Mummy, I know that man is making you sad.' It upsets me that she had to go through all this as well."

She recalled the chilling moment Knight turned up outside her home.

"My weekend at home was the only time I could be free from it, my home sort of became my sanctuary. But I ended up feeling vulnerable in my own home after he turned up outside - it was like he had breached my safe place," she said.

The principal, who has worked in the teaching profession for over 25 years, said she does not believe her experience is unique.

"Other school heads have commended me for speaking up because they are aware of similar situations," he added.

Ms Thomas also expressed disappointment with the Education Authority (EA) and believes only time will tell if they have learned anything from the nightmare which she has endured.

"I, along with the support of the governors, wanted to expel the child in question but the EA chose not to go down that road and advised that it would be discriminatory to the child," she said.

"That made the process go on much longer than was necessary and definitely heightened everything. If they had reacted differently, I might not have ended up in a courtroom."

Ms Thomas said she had already been in discussions with the EA when she sent them an email saying: "I can't cope with this anymore." She said she was shocked to learn they knew nothing about what had been happening.

A spokesperson for the EA said that, while they take safety seriously, they do not comment on individual cases.

"We are currently working with a group of principals to develop a range of advice and guidance materials to help support principals and school staff in dealing with difficult situations and aggressive behaviour," they said in a statement.

"This will include templates and suggested responses to facilitate effective communications particularly in relation to social media."

Online Editors

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News