A teacher is facing allegations of professional misconduct after he “reefed” ear defenders from the head of a nine-year-old autistic pupil and shouted at him as the boy attempted to complete a jigsaw, a fitness-to-teach inquiry has heard.
The teacher is also said to have shouted at the pupil a few weeks later and aggressively pulled him up from the floor when the boy was upset.
In addition, the school’s principal is alleged to have failed to inform the pupil’s parents of both allegations when they were made by a special needs assistant (SNA) who says she witnessed them, the inquiry heard.
Both the teacher and the principal, who are at the centre of the fitness-to-teach inquiry, have rejected the allegations.
The inquiry directed that the names of the teaching staff, the pupil, parents and the school remain anonymous.
The pupil, who has very limited verbal ability and is acutely sensitive to noise, was in an autism class of six pupils with one teacher and two special needs assistants (SNAs) at a large mainstream primary school.
The allegations relate to February 5th, 2019, on which date one of the SNAs said she witnessed the teacher in class assisting the pupil in completing a jigsaw which he was tired of, resulting in “meltdowns” when he saw it.
She said the pupil became frustrated and broke up the jigsaw, prompting the teacher to remove the boy’s ear defenders without warning, before shouting: “Hurry up... do your work, or you won’t get your lunch.”
The SNA said the boy became upset, put his fingers in his ears and stomped his feet on the ground.
“The pupil was clearly very distressed and crying,” the SNA said. “I was in shock.”
When the boy completed the jigsaw, she said the teacher commented: “At least now we know that if we take your ear defenders off, you’ll do your work.”
The SNA expressed her concerns to the school’s vice principal, who advised that she should put her allegations in writing.
Following the second alleged incident, on February 26th, 2019 – when the teacher is claimed to have “aggressively” pulled the student’s arm – the SNA left work on stress-related sick leave for a number of weeks. She resigned in July 2020, citing a lack of support from senior management.
“There was a horrible atmosphere... it was quite toxic. I used to sit in the car crying before going into work,” she said.
Eoghan O’Sullivan BL, counsel for the director of the Teaching Council, said the allegations of the teacher’s conduct, if proven, were “very serious indeed” and amounted to “disgraceful or dishonourable” conduct.
He said the principal’s response of not informing the boys’ parents about the alleged incidents and failing to interview the SNA as part of a disciplinary procedure following her complaint, if proven, amounted to poor professional behaviour and misconduct.
Mr O’Sullivan said the principal’s explanation – that he did not initially inform the boy’s parents due to his understanding that the process had to remain confidential – was “incorrect” and “absurd” in the eyes of some.
Helen Callinan, counsel for the teacher and principal, said they “categorically refuted” the allegations.
Many of the SNA’s assertions lacked credibility, she said, and were not endorsed by any other school staff.
Ms Callinan said the school’s vice principal had regular contact with the SNA about the allegations and that the SNA had later meetings with the school principal, despite her claims of feeling unsupported.
The inquiry heard that the principal would give evidence to say that he acted in a “wholly professional, fair and appropriate manner” and followed school policies for dealing with the issues at all times.
Ms Callinan said there was a close relationship between the SNA and the pupil’s family, with whom she served as a support worker, and that she had stayed in the family home, went on holidays with them and attended events organised by the pupil’s mother.
She also said that, contrary to not being asked to take part in the disciplinary investigation, the SNA was absent from school on the day the interview was due to take place.
Ms Callinan added that, as part of a “wide-ranging investigation”, teachers and SNAs in adjoining classrooms said they had never heard shouting and noted that the teacher kept the doors open to the classroom at all times.
“So, you are the only person who complained that the teacher raised his voice at all,” she said.
The SNA responded that she was the only other staff member in the classroom when each alleged incident occurred, and insisted they did happen.
“I have nothing to gain from making this up,” she said. “It’s bizarre that we’re at this point.”