Wednesday 13 November 2019

Schools urged to talk to Tusla if issue of child protection arises

There is some discretion when it comes to deciding whether there are grounds for making a report

Fee-paying: Rockwell College is set in a 350-hectare estate near Cashel, Co Tipperary
Fee-paying: Rockwell College is set in a 350-hectare estate near Cashel, Co Tipperary
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Play safe and talk to Tusla. That seems to be the best advice to schools who find themselves wondering whether a particular incident provides grounds for reporting concerns about a child protection issue.

A case has come to light about an alleged incident at the fee-paying Rockwell College, a day and boarding school in Co Tipperary, where annual fees range from €6,300 to €13,850.

It is alleged that, in November 2016, a student pulled down the underwear of a younger pupil and groped his genitals. The incident is alleged to have happened in the boarding residences.

In an interview with the school authorities the accused boy denied any groping but said he did pull down the underwear as a joke.

An audio recording of the principal and deputy principal interviewing the accused boy was cited in a newspaper report yesterday, as was correspondence from the accused boy's parents to the school. The principal, Audrey O'Byrne, is said to have told the accused boy that he had "very much crossed the line in terms of sexual assault", according to a report in the 'Irish Times'.

The school is reported to have conducted an internal inquiry, not deeming the allegation to have fallen within the category where it should be reported to the authorities. The parents of the accused boy withdrew him from the school the following month and, according to the report, they are unhappy how the school handled the matter. They argued that under the Children First legislation the allegations should have been referred to Tusla or gardaí immediately.

In an email cited in the same report, the chair of the board of management expressed "absolute confidence" in the principal.

There is nothing new about horseplay between adolescent boys and, generally speaking, no harm is intended. It is the stuff of school-yards and in circumstances where boys are living together, as in a boarding school, more opportunities present themselves.

But one person's horseplay may be another person's abuse. And if such rough play is used as a cloak for something more sinister, and is sexually motivated, it takes it into another realm.

For good reason, increasingly onerous legal obligations have been placed on schools - among others - to record and refer concerns of suspected physical, sexual or emotional abuse and neglect to the authorities, either Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, or gardaí.

Legal requirements include appointing a Designated Liaison Person (DLP), usually the principal, and a deputy DLP, to make such reports although, under the legislation, all teachers are mandated to act.

But what does a school do if it is one person's word against another, one pupil versus another pupil, and/or the terrain seems grey? There is, it seems, no grey area when it comes to what should happen next: talk to Tusla.

Schools do have discretion when it comes to deciding whether there are reasonable grounds for concern and making a report. But the official guidelines also set out a fall-back position for when there is uncertainty as to whether a report to Tusla is warranted. In such situations, the advice is to seek advice from Tusla.

Rockwell provided no comment ahead of the publication of the report about the matter yesterday and nor did it respond to a request from the Irish Independent for a comment.

Tusla said it did not comment on individual cases but has stated that "any allegation of sexual assault would reach a threshold for a mandated report under the legislation".

It added that "as a mandated person, under the legislation you are required to report any knowledge, belief or reasonable suspicion that a child has been harmed, is being harmed, or is at risk of being harmed.

"The Act defines harm as assault, ill-treatment, neglect or sexual abuse, and covers single and multiple instances."

Tusla also stated that mandated persons should not interview the alleged victim or person subject to the abuse allegations because it may impinge on a criminal investigation or a child protection assessment.

Clive Byrne, who is director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD), said best practice was to ring Tusla "and ask is this a reportable offence. If in doubt, contact Tusla".

He said if Tusla did not deem it to be a reportable matter, the school may choose to handle it through normal disciplinary procedures.

If Tusla says the matter should be reported, the school should not carry out its own investigation.

Coincidentally, at round the same time in 2016, there was an incident at King's Hospital School, a fee-paying school in Dublin. A 13-year-old was "bear hugged" on to his bed in his dormitory and had his pants pulled down and told he had a choice of having a hockey stick inserted into his body or agreeing to fight another boy. He chose to fight.

It happened on a Thursday night. According to accounts at the time, the school initially sought to contact Tusla to report the alleged incident, but couldn't get through.

On Monday the alleged incident was formally reported to Tusla and it was Tuesday when An Garda Síochána was formally notified.

Irish Independent

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