Parents disgusted at teachers' public fight
PARENTS were left stunned as bitter infighting erupted in the country's largest second-level union, with the leader revealing he had received threats to his life.
The deep rift in the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) dominated their annual conference, which had already been marred by heckling and abuse of Education Minister Ruairi Quinn.
Members face a further backlash after footage of angry exchanges on the margins of the conference was beamed into family sitting rooms on evening TV news bulletins.
Remarkable claims about threats to the life of the union General Secretary Pat King (63) left on a website moderated by ASTI members compounded a troubled week for secondary teachers.
While Mr Quinn and teachers have been at loggerheads over a number of issues, including Junior Cert reform, yesterday it seemed internal union divisions were the main distraction at the ASTI gathering in Wexford.
National Parents Council Post Primary President Don Myers condemned the behaviour of some teachers who have been seen shouting, heckling and arguing at their professional conferences.
"The behaviour that has been shown in some cases – I have to condemn that," he said.
"You lead by example. They're professional people as teachers, and they should uphold that professionalism.
"If a student came into the classroom and behaved like that, they'd put them in their place. We respect teachers as professionals – so they need to show us a certain standard.
"In the eyes of parents, teachers can express dissatisfaction but I think a number of ASTI members showed that dissatisfaction in a non-professional way.
"They must take stock and remember they're leading by example themselves."
Parents would have been shocked to see tempers boiling over among some teachers at the conference as they viewed RTE footage broadcast at tea time yesterday.
Viewers watched incredulous as footage showed teachers engaging publicly in angry exchanges in the corridor of the hotel.
"They are not representative of me or anybody else. We're sick of you," one furious delegate told members of fringe group ASTI Fightback.
Another told them: "What are you doing about it? You're only ranting and raving."
But a member of the group responded: "The education system is being dismantled. They're doing nothing about it, we're all frustrated."
But the tensions had been rising since Tuesday, when the Education Minister was constantly interrupted and heckled loudly, in one instance through a megaphone.
Yesterday ASTI leader Mr King described the treatment meted out to Mr Quinn as "nothing short of a tragedy".
As he and ASTI President Sally Maguire moved to quell widespread disquiet over the vocal scenes from the unions's conference, he insisted a small number of members had "overshadowed" the message the union was trying to put across on Junior Cert reform and other key issues.
"I saw a man (Mr Quinn) being abused, shouted down and treated disgracefully by a minority in this room," he said of the convention in Whites Hotel, Wexford.
"When it comes to matters of human decency, respect for freedom of speech, you cannot be ambiguous. You either believe in free speech and dignity or you don't," he added, as many in the room clapped, with others pointedly did not.
Mr King then became emotional as he told how he has faced "death threats" and witnessed despicable comments about his children and grandchildren on an internet website through his own union role.
He told delegates that it would have shamed him to have stayed quiet on the matter as he too had "been bullied" with personal online death threats – through a Facebook website moderated by ASTI members.
"Included on a website and left on the website by moderators for several weeks was a clear death threat for me and, worse still, despicable references to my children and grandchildren," he said, as a teacher shouted "disgraceful" from the room.
After his speech, Mr King told how he had informed the union's Central Executive Council about the abuse last January and it had been removed.
However, he said he had declined to go to the gardai but did not want to give more details on the matter.
"It was a strong suggestion that I should die," he clarified, adding the abuse had been put up online around last November. "It stayed up for certainly several weeks."
Mr King said he was relieved and "consoled" by the reaction in the room, as he felt delegates too believed such abuse was wrong.
"I want to draw a line under that kind of activity – it is annoying what happened to the minister, it is annoying what happened to me. Let's get on with real issues – Junior Cycle."
Mark Walshe, a teacher from Swords, north Dublin, who heads the activist group calling itself ASTI Fightback, said he had no knowledge of a death threat on its Facebook site. And no offensive comments had been posted by ASTI Fightback members, he said.
As moderators of the site – which is one of several forums teachers leave comments on – he said that they were committed to removing any posts that were in any way "personally attacking".