Sunday 8 December 2019

Student found distressed on motorway after school teacher let him drink wine in his on-campus residence, inquiry hears

Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

A 19-year-old student was found by Gardai on a motorway in a distressed state after a late night incident with his school housemaster, a Teaching Council inquiry heard today.

The foreign national, who is from another European country, was trying to hail a taxi to go to the airport to return home, the inquiry into the teacher’s fitness to teach heard.

A school maths teacher and housemaster who allowed a 19-year-old male student to drink wine in his on-campus residence is the subject of a fitness to teach inquiry underway today.

The teacher, described only as MP, was said to be under the influence of alcohol himself and alone with the pupil at the time.

The student had been drinking alcohol with the teacher/housemaster in his on-campus residence.

Outlining the case for the Teaching Council Remy Farrell, SC, said the teacher/housemaster and student had been drinking together. The student had come to his on-campus residence, apparently for the  purpose of resolving some difficulties and for receiving support.

“Student A appears to have become upset and agitated to extent that he seems to have torn his own clothing” and left the house and went into the grounds of the school.

He made his way to the motorway and was trying to hail a taxi to the airport when the Gardai came across him.

Mr Farrell said the student was intoxicated, although counsel for the teacher said that the view of a Garda dealing with the matter was that while there was a smell of alcohol from the student’s breath, he was not drunk.

They questioned him and brought him back to the school but later that morning he travelled to the airport and returned home.

A Garda said she and a colleague responded to a call at about 12.30AM in relation to a male waking on the motorway, trying to flag down cars.

She said when they found him, he was in a “distressed state and wasn’t making much sense, just that he wanted to get to the airport.”

He told them who he was and where he had come from, and they brought him back to the school.

On the way to the principal’s house a male approached the student and tried to engage him in conversation. “He held his arm and said you don’t need to do this, you don’t need to do this.”

She said the student “physically froze and went from being distressed to a look of sheer fear”. She told the male who approached the student that “this was nothing to do with you, you need to step aside” and he walked off in another direction.

When counsel for the teacher put it to Garda that she was embellishing her initial statement, which had not mentioned the phrase “sheer fear”, the Garda replied that was what had happened.

She said while there was a smell of alcohol off the student, she would not class him as “being drunk”.

In a statement from the teacher, which Mr Farrell read out, MP said there had been issues with the student’s application to his studies in the previous weeks. The teacher was frustrated about that and he had been trying to help him.

On the evening of November 28 2016, when the student came to his residence, the teacher/housemaster was off duty and was relaxing at home and drinking wine.

An issue arose over whether the student was taking the drug Ritalin, which had not been prescribed for him.

According to his statement, MP said the student “tore his tee short off”, and in the ensuing period, he said there was “physical contact but nothing inappropriate”. The student got angry and the teacher said they would go to the principal together.

He said he was trying to talk the student down. He said he regretted the situation reaching that stage, He told the student to “get himself together” and he let the house. When he returned, at about 10pm, the student was gone.

He said he did not know how that the student was as intoxicated as he was later that night but said he may have stolen alcohol from the residence

School principal, identified  as NB, said while having a “beer” with a housemaster when out for a curry might be considered okay for senior pupils, a staff member would never drink on their own with a student.

This is the second case to be heard by the Teaching Council under new legislation and follows a complaint by the school principal.

It is being heard in public but on an anonymised basis, so no names will be revealed.

The alleged incident took place on the evening of November 28 2016, and/or early in the morning on November 29.

The allegations are that the teacher/housemaster:

  • provided and/or allowed the student to consume  one or more glasses of wine in an in-campus residence;
  • left the student in the residence knowing that alcohol was available, knowing that the student had already consumed alcohol and/or was angry and or upset;
  • was under the influence of alcohol and not fit and/or capable of discharging duties as a housemaster;
  • failed to report or contact any senior member of staff after noticing that the student was absent from his dorm around midnight;
  • sent text messages to the student throughout the night and early morning, including messages to retract information that he had provided to the principal and or the Gardai;
  • continued to send text messages after the principal had required that he cease.

Two days have been set aside for the hearing.

Such hearings, similar to those conducted for doctors and nurses, investigate cases of under performance 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 a private, partly private or public, but anonymised, hearing and it is up to the hearing panel to decide.

An application for the hearing not to proceed because the alleged activities did not relate to the housemaster’s role as teacher was not upheld.

Mary Paula Guinness, instructed by Whitney Moore solicitors, for the teacher, told the Disciplinary Committee Inquiry Panel, that to be appointed as housemaster it was not a prerequisite to be a teacher.

She said the “matters related entirely” to his  duties as housemaster and not to his role as teacher. And she said he was off duty as a housemaster at the time.

Ms Guinness said there was nothing in the legislation that allowed the Teaching Council to look at the role of housemaster, which was an entirely different role to that of teacher.

In a counter argument, Remy Farrell, SC for the Teaching Council, said there was a suggestion that the alleged activities occurred in the context of counselling the student in terms of educational attainment.

“This is conduct that relates directly to MP’s role as a teacher. The evidence will establish that fairly clearly,” he said.

Mr Farrell said you could not “disentangle” the role of someone as housemaster and likened it to other supervisory activities that take place outside the classroom setting.

The disciplinary panel, which is being advised by Ms Emily Egan, SC, took time to consider the application but ruled that it was satisfied that it had jurisdiction.

Panel chairperson, Claire Markey, a teacher, said the application was premature but that the teacher could make a fresh applications if he deemed it appropriate at any stage.

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