A primary school principal broke down in tears after winning a High Court challenge to her dismissal, which arose from allegations by a special needs assistant (SNA) of inappropriate behaviour towards two young pupils.
Mr Justice Anthony Barr said the principal, who denied the allegations, was entitled to be given adequate reasons by the school's board of management for the dismissal last year. He said she got nothing beyond being effectively told in a letter that "we did not believe you, therefore you are being dismissed".
The judge said the principal was dismissed after an investigation process was put in place by the board, involving an independent expert report, and a 6½ hour disciplinary hearing before the board. The five board members who were eligible to vote then unanimously backed her dismissal.
The judge said there was no evidence of any consideration by the board as a whole of the evidence put before it and the principal was not told whether all the allegations against her were deemed to have been proven or, if not, which of them had been.
The dismissal letter refered to one board member saying he voted for dismissal after listening to the evidence and “because the childen in case have blossomed since”.
The judge said that was “irrelevant and irrational” and the other reasons given were “equally deficient”.
While having considerable sympathy for the board members as lay people probably without legal or adjudicatory experience, they were required to, and capable of, giving reasons beyond the “extremely short and vague” letter dismissing the principal from a post she had held for some 20 years.
The dismissal had “profound” consequences financially and for her standing in her community. This case concerned only the legality of the process leading to dismissal, he stressed.
The case arose after an SNA made 17 allegations in the spring of 2016 concerning the principal’s treatment of ‘Child A’, a four-year-old girl, and six allegations regarding her treatment of ‘Child B’, a nine-year-old boy.
It was alleged that the principal “hurt” ‘Child A’ over a 30 minute period, caused red marks to appear on one of her wrists, “chunks” to be taken out of her hands and made her stand for periods during her lunch breaks.
The principal denied the claims. She and another teacher said ‘Child A’ was prone to saying she was “hurt” when she did not want to do something. The principal also said the SNA was not present during the 30 minute period and another teacher had said she saw no incident where the girl was hurt.
In relation to ‘Child B’, it was alleged that the principal treated him very unfairly, made him do work inappropriate to his age and educational status, and made derogatory comments about him, including telling another child to eat up their lunch or ‘Child B’ — who was obese — would eat it. She denied those claims.
The allegations prompted an investigation by the board, were referred to Tusla and the principal was put on administrative leave. Tusla informed the board later in 2016 that it saw no need to involve its social work department in the matter. The board continued with its investigation and a disciplinary hearing, which led to her dismissal early last year.
The principal successfully appealed the dismissal to a Disciplinary Appeals Board but its recommendation that she be immediately reinstated was not accepted by the board of management which instead confirmed the dismissal.
In judicial review proceedings, the principal, represented by Peter Ward SC and Maireád McKenna BL, argued the investigation process, and the rejection of the appeals board’s recommendation, was fundamentally flawed.
Mr Justice Barr said up to and including the disciplinary hearing before the board early last year, the board and its chairperson had acted in a “fair and exemplary” manner.
While it was a “significant” fact that Tusla had found nothing in its investigation, this did not absolve the board from investigating the allegations, he said.
A 6½ hour disciplinary hearing before the board was conducted in an “exemplary” manner and included the principal reading a statement over 2½ hours and her cross-examination of the SNA, he said.
However, he said there was “simply no evidence” that the board had engaged with and evaluated the evidence against the principal, her response or the supporting evidence she had called.
The judge ruled that the dismissal decision must be quashed because it failed to set out adequate reasons for dismissal.
The matter was adjourned to December 11th for formal orders. By court order, none of the parties can be identified.