A school principal allegedly told one of her staff who had recently suffered a miscarriage that it was “probably for the best” and noted that the woman already had grown-up children, the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) has heard.
The comments were among several incidents of bullying and harassment allegedly experienced by special needs assistant (SNA) Andrea Comerford, who has taken a case over her treatment at St Paul’s Community College in Waterford city, where she worked from 2005 to 2018.
The details were outlined at a sitting of the commission where Ms Comerford has taken a constructive dismissal case under section 8 of the Unfair Dismissals Act against Waterford Wexford Education and Training Board (WWETB).
She alleged that she was unfairly treated by principal Noreen Reilly in a “toxic work environment” from September 2013 until she handed in her resignation notice in the summer of 2018.
Ms Comerford, from Kilbarrymeaden, Kill, Co Waterford, said that prior to her miscarriage in December 2017, she sustained a “head injury” when she walked into a pillar in the school corridor. She said she was left with a broken nose and two black eyes and lay unconscious in the corridor for a time.
She said hospital staff asked why she was not brought there from the school in an ambulance when she presented with her injuries later that day. When asked by her representative Tom Creedon whether an accident report had been completed, Ms Comerford alleged this did not happen until “several months later”.
She told adjudicator Gaye Cunningham that she met Ms Reilly when she returned to work following her miscarriage, while still presenting with two black eyes.
“She [Ms Reilly] did offer to find somewhere for me to work on the premises to not be in public, because visibly I probably would have been a curiosity,” Ms Comerford.
Ms Comerford alleged the principal “told me it was probably for the best” that she had suffered a miscarriage.
“She then asked me: ‘Your girls are grown-up, how old are they?’ At the time I was probably in shock and on reflection at a later stage I realised how inappropriate it was.”
Ms Comerford told the commission that she had represented fellow SNAs and advocated for students with disabilities and felt she was “punished” for this.
She said she was “constantly asked what I was doing” if seen in the corridor and believed she was “followed” at other times in the school by Ms Reilly and “some teachers”.
“I really felt I was the problem,” she said. “It led to me questioning myself . . .I saw a GP, I saw a psychiatrist, I went to various self-help groups. I took up cognitive behavioural therapy. I joined the union. I really thought I was going crazy. I needed somebody else to tell me is this me? As it happens, in my therapies it became very apparent I was being bullied.”
Mary Paula Guinness, counsel for the WWETB, said the board “completely denied” that other staff were looking to leave St Paul’s at the same time as Ms Comerford and would contest other claims made at the next sitting of her case.
Ms Comerford’s representatives, trade unionists Mr Creedon and Una Dunphy, laid out the case, alleging that staff at St Paul’s submitted a petition against Ms Reilly to the WWETB while she was principal.
When the principal moved to another school – Waterford College of Further Education (WCFE) – Mr Creedon claimed many staff there eventually signed a petition in protest over its management and that a staff member from WCFE was present in the court to give evidence of a “toxic work environment” there. He added that WCFE students staged a strike and walk-out over issues with management in 2020.
Ms Cunningham closed the sitting following the completion of Ms Comerford’s evidence and said it would resume in the coming weeks with her cross-examination.