Wednesday 13 December 2017

School principal gripped by cabin fever starts afresh

Phillip Ryan

John Hand was forced to quit his head-teacher job after a neighbour falsely accused him of stealing, writes Phillip Ryan

WHEN primary school principal John Hand bought a prefab for storage during the renovation of his house, he did not think he would lose his job nine years later.

Similarly, his neighbour Declan McKeever, did not think he would be down €500,000 when he told Saint Oliver Plunkett National School in Meath that he delivered the prefab from the school to Mr Hand's home in Navan.

The four-year legal dispute, that Mr Hand calls "a nightmare of mammoth proportions" was settled earlier this month with Mr McKeever paying his neighbour €175,000 in damages and incurring €325,000 in legal costs.

The farmer also published an apology in the Irish Independent, clearly stating that he had lied to the authorities who ran Mr Hand's school.

On December 4, 2000, Mr Hand bought a prefab from Cabinpac, a Meath-based portable building company that the principal had dealt with previously when they supplied temporary buildings for his primary school.

The cabin was delivered to Mr Hand's home on Donaghmore Lane on January 22, 2001, by Lesley Heffernan -- a local truck driver contracted by the company to deliver their prefabs.

The following March, on the back of a planning authority order, the principal asked Mr McKeever -- a friend whose children attended his primary school -- to help him move the cabin to the back of his house.

Mr McKeever was happy to use his tractor and trailer to help his friend move the shed and in March he helped again when Mr Hand wanted the shed moved to a concrete slab in his back garden.

The local man did not charge for the use of his tractor and it was described in court as a "personal favour" between friends.

Mr Hand said: "It was just a favour. I had a good relationship with him like I had with all the parents and he would have been a supportive parent. He would have been very supportive in anything you would be doing for his kids."

Four years later, while visiting his mother, Mr McKeever runs in to his third cousin and patron of Saint Oliver Plunkett school, Bishop Michael Smith.

In testimony given during Mr Hand's school disciplinary hearing, Mr McKeever said the bishop had asked him if he had removed the prefab from the school and brought it to the principal's home.

Mr McKeever said: "Bishop Smith, he asked me directly, he says: 'Did you move a cabin out to John Hand's house?'

"I said: 'I did.' And after that he said: 'I don't want to know anything more.

"It's going to be the priest in the parish that will talk about it, okay'."

Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Mr Hand said: "Bishop Smith asked him (Mr McKeever) did he move a cabin from the school to my house and he said he did.

"I said: 'You never did that, you moved it twice around my house.'

"He said: 'That's not my recollection,' and hung up.

"He ended the conversation very abruptly. I was very distressed and worried."

School manager Father Brendan Ludlow launched an inquiry into the alleged theft, and the allegation that Mr Hand transferred four children to a school where his wife was principal so they would not lose a teacher because of classroom quotas.

In April 2009, Mr Hand sought a High Court injunction preventing the school from issuing disciplinary proceedings against him in relation to the prefab and the pupil transfer.

Mr Hand admitted to the pupil transfer charge in court but said the pupil's parents agreed to the move and he did not believe he had broken any rules.

The courts ruled against him that December, and the following July a full disciplinary hearing was carried out by Fr Ludlow.

During the hearing Mr McKeever was questioned extensively by both the school and the principal's legal teams about the prefab and his conversation with Bishop Smith.

The court heard earlier this month that the school and Cabinpac carried out an audit prior to the disciplinary proceedings and found there were no missing prefabs.

Mr Hand also produced the receipt for the prefab during the disciplinary hearing.

However, Fr Ludlow was unequivocal in his ruling and called the principal's suggestion of conspiracy between Mr McKeever and Bishop Smith "quite extraordinary" and "utterly incredible".

He added: "I have been given no credible reason as to why Mr McKeever would simply make up or fabricate the evidence he gave ... I am quite satisfied that the account given by Mr McKeever is credible."

The priest ruled that Mr Hand's position was "untenable" and in September 2010 the principal resigned from the school where he had worked for 13 years.

Asked this week why he relied wholly on Mr Keever's testimony, Fr Ludlow said: "I can understand where you are coming from but I am precluded from commenting by the terms of agreement at the time of the hearing."

Bishop Smith declined to comment on the case or the conversation he had with Mr McKeever in the farmer's mother's home.

In January last year, the principal availed of the services of Robert Dore, the solicitor who successfully sued RTE over Fr Kevin Reynolds' defamation, and lodged libel proceedings against his neighbour. After five days of hearings but before Mr McKeever could take the stand, the case was settled last week.

The court also instructed Mr McKeever to have the following public apology printed in a national newspaper.

It read: "The defendant accepts that he did not in 2001 or at any time move any school prefab from St Oliver's National School to Mr Hand's house on Mr Hand's instruction or otherwise."

The principal struggled to find re-employment following his resignation but he eventually landed a job in Gaelscoil Dhroichead Na Banndan, in Bandon, Co Cork.

The married father of four now spends four days of the week staying in a bed-and-breakfast in Bandon and commutes back to Navan at the weekends to see his wife and children.

Earlier this week, a relieved Mr Hand said: "Since the High Court hearing I have got huge support from my former parent body and the kids' Facebook are all full up with congratulations, there's huge support from the town."

Sunday Independent

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