Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Protecting the innocent

man hiding from view

It has to be one of a school or college leader's worst nightmares - a teacher is suspected of having a relationship with an underage student. One ASCL member tells this story in the hopes that it will help others faced with the same situation.

My annus horribilis began innocuously enough one Friday morning, when a pupil made a complaint about a member of staff that at first didn't seem that serious.

Following our child protection procedures, we reported the matter to Children's Services which in turn suggested we take advice from the child protection unit of the police.

The police response was unequivocal. An officer arrived within the hour and an investigation got underway immediately.

Almost exactly a year later, the matter finally came to an end.

The member of staff was told what was happening as soon as the investigation started but was not suspended. However, the next day, another pupil made allegations to me of a sexual relationship against the same teacher which she said occurred when she was in year 9.

Within hours, an emergency strategy group meeting was arranged with all the key players - the school, the police, social services, and representatives from the council.

From this moment, I was not in control of events. Every action was decided by the strategy group, including the decision to suspend the member of staff. Because the second pupil had made the allegations to me, I was now part of the police case and could not be involved.

The staff were divided. Many of them couldn't believe he could have done such a thing while some indicated that they had always had suspicions about him. Even staff who worked very closely with him were split.

Media frenzy

Within days the local newspaper got hold of the story. Because they were not allowed to reveal who the teacher was, they printed my photograph alongside the headline "Teacher accused of sexual assault". That was a very dark day.

Reporters also skulked around the neighbourhood near the school, asking people to contact them with information about the situation. The police reprimanded the newspaper but the damage was done. Fortunately, very little information was given to the newspaper and what was they were forced to pass onto the police.

The leadership team held daily crisis meetings and a deputy and assistant head gave up numerous hours to assist the police.

I felt I was on the outside looking in. I still had a responsibility towards the member of staff and wrote to him regularly to extend his suspension period and keep him updated.

Eventually, after a couple of months, the teacher was arrested and charged with seven offences, the most serious of which was sexual assault and the least serious, breach of trust. He appeared in the local magistrate's court and his photograph and name were blazoned across all the local papers. Within hours of the newspaper article being published he was hounded by reporters and fled his home.

The judge instructed that the name of the school should not be revealed in order to protect the identity of the girls but it wasn't difficult to put the earlier article with this one and work out which school he came from.

Pupils brought in copies of the papers to show each other and staff had a hard time trying to keep the lid on all the gossip and speculation circulating.

For a short period of time, a few months at most, the school returned to normality whilst the case was referred to the Crown Court. Ofsted came and went but we hardly noticed.

Emotional burden

As the trial in the Crown Court approached I began to feel increasingly isolated from the rest of the leadership team. I wanted to take the emotional burden from them but was in no fit state to do so.

Because I was a witness, I could not talk to anyone else about the court case. I was finding it increasingly difficult to deal with the whole matter and I found myself becoming very withdrawn. After ending up crying one day in my office with a colleague, I admitted I wasn't coping and sought counselling through my GP.

The GP was excellent and a quick referral followed. The counselling helped if only to rationalise the situation and give me my perspective back. I don't think I realised just how much stress I was under at the time.

Although the police were organising the case and one officer was in school just about every day, the leadership team were not informed of the details.

I found out only days before appearing in court that three other members of staff, including the deputy head, had been summoned as well. I did not know the names of all the girls who had been called to appear and was surprised to find the headteacher of the school the teacher taught at previously had also been summoned.

I had to trust the police to do what was necessary, like organising court familiarisation visits for the pupils who would give evidence. The police had their reasons for keeping the school in the dark but it was frustrating all the same.

Increasing tension

Once the trial got underway, the tension in school increased considerably. Some of the girls were very distressed. If one started crying it set others off and I found myself granting requests for leave of absence in an effort to restore calm.

There were so many times when I wanted to comfort the girls and tell them how sorry I was that they were going through this, but I wasn't allowed to.

The trial was scheduled to last for two weeks but it quickly became apparent it would overrun into half-term break. I decided this could be a blessing in disguise although, with the leadership team spread across Europe, communicating the verdict would be complicated.

The police were fairly uncommunicative during the trial and we had no indication of how it was going. We all had our separate parts to play but the overview was missing.

I don't have anything about giving evidence in court on my job description and, despite a court familiarisation visit found I was ill prepared. It was difficult coming face to face with the accused again having not seen him for a couple of months and although the defence barrister may have been somewhat gentle with the pupils, she was not with me. For a few moments I felt as though I was on trial and not a witness.

How the girl whose disclosure had led us to this point felt, I cannot imagine. It must have been a tremendous ordeal for her and, although she initially decided to give her evidence via video link, she actually stood in the witness box on the day. Not an easy thing to do. Irrespective of the outcome all of the pupils and staff involved were very courageous and I was proud of the way they conducted themselves.

There was a huge sense of relief once all of the witnesses had given their evidence and as school broke for the half term, the trial moved to the summing up stage.

Reaching the verdict

A complicated telephone and email tree was established so that the leadership team and governors could be informed of the verdict and arrangements made for a press statement.

I don't think any of us thought of anything but the case during the half-term break and it was late Tuesday afternoon that the verdicts started to come through.

He was found not guilty of the first five most serious charges. Frantic emails and hurried telephone calls took place during the remainder of the half-term break.

At the Monday morning staff briefing, I told the rest of the staff the verdict and thanked them for their support and for not discussing the case previously. I asked them not to discuss the outcome but to draw a line under things and move on. By now many staff had left the school during the year and new staff had joined who knew nothing about the case so it was easier to let the matter rest.

I had worried about the reputation of the school being tarnished by the case but the newspapers had little to report. He was found not guilty and there was no story in that.

The papers did report that the girls had been called liars and fantasists by the defence barrister and, although the police did a bit of 'mopping up' with the girls by way of a debrief, one can only imagine how devastated they felt.

Moving on

The school was now divided. We discovered that at least one member of staff had given evidence for the defence, that several pupils had also and that the public gallery had been packed with pupils supporting him on the day of the verdict.

Some pupils felt they were 'right' because he had been found not guilty and that the other pupils who had made allegations were 'wrong'. Harsh words were exchanged between pupils, some of whom had been friends before. It was a horrible situation to try to manage. I was sadly mistaken in my belief that the end of the trial would bring the matter to a close.

Although I pray that no headteacher ever has to experience what I went through, I hope this article will give an insight as to what to expect if it does happen. I didn't so much need to know the details of the legal process as what kind of emotional rollercoaster lay ahead and what pitfalls the media were likely to create.

The whole event has been the most stressful thing I have had to manage in the school, partly because of my involvement in it. I did not have the advantage of being one step removed. The events of the past year have changed all of us at the school, and the member of staff concerned, irrevocably.

The system treated the member of staff very badly, regardless of the outcome. He was hounded from his home and was tried and found guilty in the papers long before the matter ever got to court.

All of the witnesses who gave evidence displayed enormous courage but inevitably those who gave evidence for him must have felt vindicated whereas one can only guess how those who testified against him felt.

There were no real winners in this case but plenty of losers.

The headteacher who wrote this article wishes to remain anonymous to protect those involved.

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