Thursday 21 November 2019

Katherine Donnelly: 'Offender will be barred from ever working in classroom again'


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Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

The defence barrister James Dwyer said he could not find a similar case in Irish law. But, anecdotally, this is not the first story of a post-primary teacher and a pupil crossing a line into a personal and perhaps, sexual, relationship. However improper they may be deemed, some have even gone on to marry.

But in the case before the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court this week, not only was there a relationship that became personal, but also sexual, and with a minor. A 16-year-old, fifth-year male pupil.

Ultimately, the teacher pleaded guilty to two counts of defilement of a child under 17. It was a clear-cut, criminal case. In parallel with the courts of law, the education system was swift to pass its judgment, based on the standards set for the profession.

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The teacher, 23 at the time of the offences, was engaged as a substitute. Confronted by the boy's mother, who had an Instagram picture provided by one of her son's friends, the principal confirmed the teacher's identity. The teacher lost her job and the mother went to the Garda.

A decision by one school to terminate a contract may have no wider repercussions for a teacher, although a matter as serious as this would be expected to surface, at the very least, in the context of any request for a reference.

But the professional standards body Teaching Council has a wider role, and a responsibility to ensure accountability for poor professional performance and/or professional misconduct. Where appropriate, it can mean never being recognised to teach again.

The council's Code of Professional Conduct for Teachers does not specifically outlaw student-teacher relationships of a personal nature, but the guidelines are threaded with sound advice, such as "relationships with pupils and others, that are characterised by professional integrity and judgment".

Teachers are also reminded of their role in "relation to the care of pupils/students under their supervision, so as to ensure their safety and welfare".

All teachers must be registered with the council if they are to work in a State-paid job and, where concerns about their fitness to practice come to the council's attention, it has legal powers.

The council may act either on foot of a complaint or where it has received information and where it considers it is in the public interest to suspend a teacher from the register.

Such public interest considerations include allegations of violent or sexually abusive behaviour, allegations of inappropriate sexual advances being made towards a student, or where there is evidence to suggest a teacher has used his or her professional position to establish or pursue a sexual or improper relationship with a student.

The Teaching Council has taken steps to remove the teacher in this case from the register and the judge was told the council was now seeking a permanent order to prevent her from teaching. The defence barrister said his client would not be resisting such an order.

Irish Independent

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