Last resort or happy ending?

Sat, May 26, 2012, 01:00

Incidents of end-of-term ‘high jinks’ have led to a number of Leaving Cert students being thrown out of schools in recent weeks, but the issue has divided teachers and parents

IT HAPPENS EVERY YEAR. Classes finish, exams are nigh and sixth-year students, high on freedom and stress, decide that one last blowout is in order. After all, teachers can’t touch them now, can they?

It’s the kind of atmosphere that can lead to students organising a rave in their common room and padlocking it from the inside, as happened last week at the High School in Rathgar, Dublin 6. Subsequent “exchanges” with senior school staff, as well as reported “slagging” of teachers on Facebook, made matters worse.

In 2010, there were 148 expulsions and more than 14,000 suspensions in Irish schools. Leaving Cert indiscipline is often tolerated as seasonal high jinks. But this time the school decided a line had been crossed. The organisers of the rave were identified. Their parents were telephoned and informed of their expulsion. The High School finished classes early, and the graduation ceremony was cancelled. The expelled students will have to sit their exams at an alternative exam centre.

Expulsion is an emotive issue. Authorities at the High School have come under pressure to reconsider their decision. At a meeting last Sunday, parents expressed anger at the perceived heavy-handedness of the authorities, and concern at the impact of events on the students who are about to sit exams.

There has been much debate surrounding schools’ use of severe discipline at this time of year, but one principal of a large school believes they have little choice, even in the run-up to exams. “Schools have to be strategic about this sort of thing,” he says. “If you don’t take a strong stance, things can build.”

Disciplinary decisions vary from school to school. St Joseph’s CBS in Nenagh dealt with four streakers, who showed up at a school sports event wearing nothing but Afro wigs, by requiring them to sit their Leaving Cert at another exam centre.

“Look, students who find themselves in these situations should get the books out and get down to some serious study,” says Pat King, general secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland. “If students have to go to school A as opposed to school B in order to sit their exams, it’s a pity, but it’s not the end of the world.” Indeed, there is often a “prisoner exchange” of sorts between exam centres in these cases. Students are unlikely to be left floundering.

Details of two further incidents, one at Mount Anville and the other at St Mary’s College, both prominent schools in south Dublin, also emerged this week. Five sixth-year Mount Anville girls tied up a fifth-year student and drove her to the grounds of Blackrock College, where she was found, extremely distressed, some time later.

The St Mary’s boys, in a similar incident, bundled a schoolmate into a car and drove him to Muckross Park College, in Donnybrook, where he was found tied to a tree. The Garda got involved when a concerned witness to the abduction raised the alarm. Reports of a Garda helicopter being scrambled were unfounded.

It is believed that the sanctions for these incidents have stopped short of expulsion. The five students involved in the Mount Anville bullying were forbidden to attend their graduation and prize-giving ceremony. Details of further measures taken, if any, are unknown.

Meanwhile, more than 60 Blackrock College students were suspended after boisterous behaviour.

“Every school sets its own standards,” says Clive Byrne, director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals. “Why is it that the last week is seen as some sort of licence to create chaos? If students go overboard some principals will suspend, some will expel, but it’s the last thing you want to do.”

EXPULSION AND SUSPENSIONare always thorny issues for schools, even more so with the integration of social media into students’ lives. The current debate surrounding school discipline kicked off because of a decision by Oatlands College in Stillorgan, Co Dublin, to expel four students for posting “vile” allegations of a sexual nature about three teachers on Facebook.

While many argued that the action was extreme, that the students may not have realised the consequences of posting on Facebook, one online poll showed general support for the stance taken by the school.

Dylan Grace, president of the Irish Second Level Students’ Union, says schools need to be clear about what is acceptable and what isn’t. “Facebook is like bullying-plus. If someone is being picked on, it’s seen by the whole world. Schools really need to have guidelines in place and ensure students know about them.”

At the moment, many of the cases in question are under appeal. “The last thing a school wants to do is to tell someone to get out,” says King. “But they have to balance that against the safety of other students and the example they want to set. If schools don’t act, what message are they sending?”

BARRY CRONINis an award-winning photographer. He was expelled from school in 1984

I was expelled with three weeks of fourth year to go. My parents were mortified. To me it just felt like freedom. I felt bad for my mother, but I was delighted to get out of the place.

I was a messer. Never anything violent, but I was sent out of class all the time. My father told me I’d have to get a job, but one of our neighbours was the head of the local tech, so I called in to him to see if they’d take me. They did, and I loved it.

There were a couple of dark years after school where my friends were all going to college and I was stuck delivering telephone directories.

I got into software through my brother and worked in Japan for a couple of years. That’s when the photography began to take over.

My pictures have been used in the likes of Newsweek and Encyclopaedia Britannica. I’ve travelled the world. I don’t think expulsion did me any harm.

KEITH GRACE(35), aka Paranoid Erik, is the lead singer of Dublin band The Bloody Quills

I was a messer in first year. The teachers assumed I was thick, so I was put in the bottom stream for most of my subjects.

My exam results and essays were good, especially in English, so I kept getting moved up through the streams. I’d be dragged into a new class where I knew nobody, so I’d be boisterous, extroverted – trying to be cool.

In third year I was suspended for smoking, my parents were brought in and I was asked to leave the school. My parents were like, “Please don’t,” but that was it. I was a bit scared if I’m honest. After all this time, it still irks me.

RUTHgraduated from school in 1999

In first year I went to a mixed school on the southside of Dublin. I didn’t like it. I was a smart kid, but due to family issues at home – my parents were in the middle of a messy separation – I was somewhat wayward. By the end of first year, a number of teachers had refused to teach me and I was asked to leave. I wanted to go, so I wasn’t upset. I took it as a badge of honour.

Then I went to an all-girls’ boarding school. In sixth year, I was suspended for two days for smoking and I got my belly button pierced, just to make a point. I was annoyed about it; I felt the school was making an example of us.

There was also an incident at the end of sixth year involving beer and shaving foam. (I was the ringleader.) For that we were strongly reprimanded and threatened with not being allowed sit our Leaving Cert in the school, but we did. None of this really bothered me that much, and it certainly doesn’t now. I was a troublemaker but always took the consequences in my stride.

ALLAN CLARKE(35) is from Co Kildare. He is studying to be a psychotherapist

My parents broke up when I was about 15, and that was sort of it for me. I wasn’t disruptive, but I sat in the back of the class with my hoodie up and my head down on the desk. I was there in body but not in mind.

There was no big meeting. One day the principal called me aside and told me that if I didn’t leave – I had been thinking about it anyway – he’d kick me out the following week. That was April of fifth year. I was only 15, and nobody was keen on employing me, so I made up my mind to go to a different school.

The fresh start helped. I finished school, but I always regretted not going to college.

Now that I’m studying psychotherapy, I suppose I can’t help thinking that someone at school should have taken me aside at that time and asked whether I was okay.

DARA CRUISE(33) is the manager of the Ice House Hotel in Ballina, Co Mayo. He is originally from Stillorgan, Co Dublin

I was suspended for fighting in the schoolyard. Because the guy I fought was in the year below me, it was deemed to be bullying. I remember having to tell my mother about it. That was one of the worst experiences of my life.

At the end of third year, my parents were summoned and told in a very nice way that the school wasn’t the right environment for me. The principal, in fairness to him, suggested I go to a tech.

That was the best thing that could have happened. I went from being the most troubled to the least troubled in the group. I ended up doing the Leaving Cert and my mother suggested giving hotel management a try. I said I’d give it a year.

Being expelled was traumatic at the time, and, while it wasn’t immediately life-changing, it was a bump in the road. Without it, I don’t know what track my life would have taken.

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