Solicitors are seeing a significant increase in cases involving school discipline and teacher negligence claims, a teachers' conference heard yesterday.
Solicitor Mr Ian O'Herlihy, of Arthur O'Hagan solicitors, told an Irish Vocational Education Association (IVEA) conference in Dublin that he regularly dealt with school-related cases which would have been unheard of three years ago.
"There has been a significant increase in the number of cases in which teachers have been challenged on the way in which they dealt with a particular classroom, schoolyard or school tour incident," Mr O'Herlihy said.
"Teachers have been accused of negligence in their failure to handle the situation properly or their failure to handle the situation at all. "Principals who have applied a sanction on a pupil, such as suspension, have been challenged. The policies of schools on such issues as drugs have been assessed by the courts."
Mr O'Herlihy said the courts placed onerous obligations on teachers and expected them to behave reasonably, regardless of provocation.
With the increase in drug use, the solicitor said it was "absolutely vital" that all schools had a policy on drug-related incidents. "Drugs are an issue for every school," he said and added that teachers faced major dilemmas dealing with such incidents.
"You cannot physically search a pupil whether you know he is a walking dispensary or not," Mr O'Herlihy said. "That's a matter for the gardai." He pointed out that teachers needed the consent of a pupil or his/her parents before carrying out such a search. Lockers were school property and therefore could be searched, Mr O'Herlihy said. However, he said teachers were not legally entitled to search a pupil's school bag without consent.
Mr O'Herlihy advised teachers faced with violent behaviour from pupils to rehearse difficult situations so as to be able to handle them. He said "justifiable" use of force by teachers was allowable in certain circumstances and the courts were generally sympathetic to teachers who used reasonable force to protect someone from injury.
Mr Michael Moriarty, IVEA general secretary, told the gathering that teachers faced a much more difficult job than their predecessors. He said modern technology had produced a new intolerance in children who were used to mobile phones, Internet access and instant communication. "This puts greater pressure on teachers and contributes to some misbehaviour," he said.
Dr Jim Connolly of the Co Dublin VEC psychological support service said the number of children with "difficult behaviour" had not significantly increased in recent years.
He said children lived at home for longer now because they stayed in the education system longer. "They are not allowed to be responsible for themselves until they are 25. They want autonomy and when someone refuses it, this makes trouble. How would you feel if you had no power over yourself?"
Psychologist Ms Maire Dooey said the increase in the legal school-leaving age meant schools were now dealing with some students who would traditionally have left in their early teens for an apprenticeship or other work.