Thursday 22 August 2019

'I was scared' - students who allegedly had sellotape applied to their mouths give evidence at fitness-to-teach hearing

The first hearing into a teacher’s fitness to practice in an Irish school is underway at the Teaching Council's office in Maynooth. (Picture: Damien Eagers)
The first hearing into a teacher’s fitness to practice in an Irish school is underway at the Teaching Council's office in Maynooth. (Picture: Damien Eagers)

Katherine Donnelly and Alan O'Keeffe

Five teenagers said their mouths were sellotaped shut by a teacher when they were in fifth class in primary school.

They gave evidence of  their treatment by a substitute teacher at Ireland’s first ever public fitness to practice inquiry held today by the Teaching Council.

The female teacher was facing allegations of professional misconduct at the inquiry into the incident that happened in the primary school on March 7, 2012.

“I was scared and shocked,” said one of the teenagers as she recalled the incident.

The identity of the teacher, the school principal and the pupils were not made public at the hearing. The school was not named.

The teacher was not present at the hearing and was not represented. She had denied the accusations and claimed the children had taped up their own mouths.

Each of the pupils contradicted the teacher’s statement that they had taped their own mouths.

The young witnesses said there were six boys and five girls in a maths class. They admitted all the pupils were talking and messing and that they did not stop talking despite the teacher telling them to “whist” on several occasions.

The teacher said she would sello-tape their mouths if they didn’t stop talking.

“She could not control the class. We kept talking,” said a now 16-year-old witness.

The young witnesses said the teacher placed sellotape on the lips of two of the girls and told the other three girls in the class to put sellotape on their own mouths. 

Only the five girls in the class had their mouths sellotaped but the six boys in the class did not have their mouths sellotaped, they said.

At one point, the teacher asked the boys if the sellotape should be removed from the girls’ mouths and the boys said "No" said one of the witnesses.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the three panel members said they would give their decision on the case at a later date.

The allegations occurred two days after the teacher started what was supposed to be 12-week contract working at the school, covering a staff member with a broken leg.

The teacher was in a learning support role in the school teaching a maths class, of both boys and girls, when the alleged incident occurred. 

Remy Farrell ,SC, outlining the case for the Teaching Council, said the evidence was that some students became giddy and she told them to be quiet, and, if not, she would put sellotape on their mouth’.

“Shortly afterwards she approached the girls and either applied the sellotape or directed the girls to apply it themselves” said Mr Farrell.

The girls sat with sellotape on their mouths for about 30 minutes. When the class was over the pupils went to another class being conducted by the principal, where one boy overheard what happened and told the principal.

The principal immediately brought the girls outside the room and asked them what had happened. “They were upset and distressed”, said Mr Farrell.

By this stage, the teacher had gone to another school where she was also working and the principal left a message that the teacher’s services had been dispensed with.

The teacher returned to the school later that afternoon and the principal confronted her. Mr Farrell said “she sought to justify it and said they were chatting and messing and she didn’t mean anything by it”.

Subsequently she denied to the inquiry team that she had done it and said that she had “noticed” at one point that the children had sellotape over their mouths.

Earlier, the hearing heard that, in correspondence with the inquiry team, the teacher described the allegations as “untrue” and also called them “historic and unfounded”.

She also claimed there was a bias against her and she believed she could not get fair procedure and said the council did not have permission to proceed with the oral hearing.

The hearing heard of how attempts by solicitor Natasha Forde, acting on behalf of the Teaching Council director, to maintain contact with the teacher since a preliminary hearing was held in September were frustrated.

The inquiry legal team had sent her documents concerning the allegations but later were unable to provide her with further documents.

At one stage, the teacher indicated to the inquiry team that she “no longer” wished to be contacted by phone or email.

Among the detailed evidence provided to the panel was that, last month, a man who answered a call to the contact number provided by the teacher, said that it was a “wrong number”. On other occasions there was no response or the call was disconnected.

There were several attempts to communicate with the teacher by registered letter, and in the most recent, over two days last week, a summons server called to her apartment and there was no reply.

One neighbour said she hadn’t seen her for the previous week and that post hadn’t been collected. A 10-year-old neighbour told the summons server that he believed she had “gone back to her mother’s house in another county”.

Ms Forde agreed with Remy Farrell SC, also acting on behalf of the inquiry, instructed by McDowell Purcell Solicitors, that it was correct to say that, after the teacher withdrew consent to be contacted by phone, it was “impossible to effect delivery by post”.

Although a public hearing, all details relating to the identity of the teacher, school and witness are anonymous.

The teacher was first registered in 2006 as a post-primary teacher and, at the time of the alleged incident, was on probationary registration as a primary teacher.

The hearing is being conducted by the professional standards body for the profession, the Teaching Council, which has more than 90,000 registered members.

The hearing is being conducted by a three person panel, two of whom are teachers and members both of the Teaching Council and its disciplinary committee.

The chair of the panel is Denis Magner, a teacher and the second teacher is Eamonn Shaughnessy. The third member is Aine Lynch, director of the National Parents Council (Primary)

Two days have been set aside for the hearing, the first under legislation that was enacted last year.

Such hearings, similar to those conducted for doctors and nurses, will investigate cases of underperformance and serious misconduct.

To reach a hearing, a complaint has to go through a Teaching Council Investigation Committee, which decides whether it merits being forwarded to a Disciplinary Committee.

Complaints that are considered frivolous or vexatious will not progress to a formal hearing.  

In extreme cases, teachers may be "struck off" the professional register. Lesser penalties, include suspension, admonishment or an offer of support to improve performance.

Experience in Scotland and Wales suggests in Ireland up to 30 teachers a year could face a disciplinary hearing.

To date, the Teaching Council has received about 50 complaints under the legislation.

About half of the complaints have been refused and the remainder are at different stages in the investigation and disciplinary process.

A large number of that initial batch of cases are legacy complaints that were awaiting the enactment of Fitness to Teach legislation in July 2016.

The default position is that Teaching Council hearings will be heard in public, but any party can request private, partly private or public but anonymised and it is up to the hearing panel to decide.

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