Boy’s treatment by school over alleged thefts was ‘unbelievable’, judge says

Court approves €20,000 settlement after boy was accused of stealing from teachers

 A court has approved a €20,000 settlement offer from a school board over the treatment of a schoolboy who was accused of theft. File photograph: Getty Images

A court has approved a €20,000 settlement offer from a school board over the treatment of a schoolboy who was accused of theft. File photograph: Getty Images

 

For 10 weeks 12-year-old Luke Hanlon could not face his schoolmates after they branded him the “suspect thief” when money went missing from a staffroom in a Co Laois school, a court has been told.

The headmaster at St Joseph’s National School in Borris in Ossory, Co Laois, in April 2018 asked four senior classes to mark on a piece of paper who they thought the culprit was after significant amounts of money went missing from purses belonging to two teachers.

The children blamed Luke, now aged 14, of Slieve Bloom View, Borris in Ossory, Co Laois, so he walked out of the school, after having been taken from class and questioned about the alleged thefts. He subsequently missed 10 weeks of classes and the much-anticipated school graduation.

Judge Karen Fergus, at Tullamore Circuit Civil Court, described the boy’s treatment by the school’s headmaster and board of management as unbelievable and appalling when she ruled that a €20,000 settlement from the board was reasonable compensation for their having damaged the boy’s character.

Barrister Eileen McAuley had told the court that Luke and his mother Marie Hanlon had been given a written apology by the school authorities only in May last, in which they had expressed regret and acknowledged that he is an honest young man of integrity. The school apologised to Luke for any humiliation, distress or embarrassment it had caused to him by what had happened.

Ms McAuley, who appeared with Sandra Hartford of Barry Fitzgerald Solicitors for the mother and son, stated in her legal opinion read by the judge that the boy had been wrongly accused by the school’s principal and vice-principal of two thefts of money from members of staff.

She said the school principal had gone into a classroom on April 13th, 2018, and asked the children if any of them had been involved in the alleged theft or if they knew who had been involved.

“He asked all of the pupils in the joint fifth and sixth class to write down on a piece of paper the name of the person they believed stole the money,” Ms McAuley told the court. “He made the same request of the joint third and fourth class. The boy’s name and that of another pupil were marked on the pieces of paper.”

Questioning

Ms McAuley said the boy had been called into the principal’s office, where he had been spoken to by the principal and vice-principal and asked had he stolen the money, which he denied.

He was later questioned again by the principal alone and his mother was asked to attend the school immediately.

“His mother was there within 10 minutes and established from the principal that there was no evidence whatsoever that [her son] had taken the money,” counsel said. “She questioned the manner in which the principal had handled the matter, particularly his [her son’s] classmates being asked to identify the person they believed was the culprit on a piece of paper without being required to have any basis for their belief.”

It was Ms McAuley’s opinion the boy had been identified as the culprit, singled out and treated as though he were guilty without any evidence against him.

In an affidavit, Ms Hanlon said her son had felt so humiliated by the episode that he could not return to his classes and stayed away for 10 weeks. He was now doing well at secondary school.

The school in a defence admitted that Luke had been one of two children identified by a number of other children as possibly being responsible for the alleged thefts, but denied the other pupils had been made aware that he was being singled out and accused of theft.

Approving the settlement offer, Ms Justice Fergus confirmed she had read the papers and counsel’s opinion and was “appalled” at the way the boy had been treated. She said that while no money could change what the family had gone through, the offer was a reasonable one. She thought the circumstances in which the principal had investigated the alleged thefts were unbelievable.