School principal who emotionally abused pupil by 'telling her to kneel on the floor' loses High Court challenge
A school principal demoted after having been found to have emotionally abused a pupil by requiring her to kneel on the floor on two occasions has lost her High Court challenge to the disciplinary process.
Máire Sheehy, former principal of Killaloe Convent Primary School, Co Clare, denied she sought to punish the girl or gave any instruction for her to kneel.
She said she simply put the child into other rooms to calm down a situation and as a "time out" following the pupil's behaviour in class. She claimed the child had a "predilection for kneeling".
She was initially dismissed but on appeal this was reduced to demotion back to class teacher.
Ms Just Una Ní Raifeartaigh rejected Ms Sheehy's challenge to the disciplinary process which she said was flawed and tainted by bias against her.
The judge said while the pendulum of attitudes towards disciplining pupils has happily swung far away from the harsh methods of decades ago "one wonders whether there is a danger of swinging too far in the other direction" by going straight to a disciplining of the principal which almost led to her dismissal.
Ms Sheehy was appointed dual role principal and teacher in the all girls national school comprising five other teachers and 100 pupils in September 2007.
Ms Sheehy claimed from the start there was a strained and fractious atmosphere, compounded by a history of industrial relations discontent.
Some seven years later, a number of members of staff wrote a letter complaining of difficulties within the school over a number of years and which had intensified in recent months.
There were complaints including a "fragmented atmosphere" and of staff being stressed.
Mediation followed but there was little if any improvement, the judge said.
Six months later, the deputy principal, Alison Varley, wrote another letter to the board of management complaining of, among other things, Ms Sheehy's demeaning manner, undermining of staff, failure to properly investigate the loss of €1,300 in fundraised monies and of Ms Sheehy smoking in the boiler house on a daily basis.
Ms Varley also alleged Ms Sheehy had undertaken "inappropriate methods of discipline" with regard to a particular pupil who she said had been instructed on two occasions to kneel on the ground facing the wall.
It was this particular complaint that the new board of management chairperson, Luke Murtagh, carried out an investigation into.
The board of management conducted an oral hearing into the complaints in June 2017 at which Ms Sheehy strenuously denied the allegations against her.
She said the first incident with the pupil arose when the child accidentally spilled a container of water over other pupils' drawings during Ms Sheehy's class.
She said she needed to calm the situation and she brought the child into her office so a special needs assistant (SNA) could take care of the child for a few minutes while she dealt with the situation in the classroom.
The SNA gave evidence to the disciplinary hearing that Ms Sheehy told the child to kneel down in front of the wall and stay there for five minutes. Ms Sheehy said she "did not instruct (the child) to kneel on the floor and face the wall".
In relation to the second alleged incident, Ms Sheehy said the same child became "a little giddy" in class and this was unsettling other pupils. She placed the child in the care of another teacher in another class, "not as a disciplinary action" but "simply as a time out". Again, she denied instructing the child to kneel down.
She also said the child had a habit and "a predilection for kneeling" under a certain teacher's care.
Ms Sheehy, who was represented by the Irish National Teachers' Organisation at the disciplinary hearing, claimed it was tainted by bias and that the chairperson refused to step down despite a request from her representative.
The board decided the evidence against her had been substantiated and she should be dismissed.
She appealed and an independent panel rejected her appeal saying all procedures had been adhered to and the facts considered in a reasonable manner.
However, it found the dismissal decision was disproportionate and recommended demotion.
Ms Justice Ní Raifeartaigh said even if there were defects in the original disciplinary hearing by the board, none of them were alleged to have tainted the appeal which Ms Sheehy did not challenge.