Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Accusations in the staffroom

Finger Pointing

Being falsely accused of bullying or harassment is any school or college leader's nightmare. Being suspended without the support of your employer is worse. One ASCL member shares this story in the hope that it will help others who may face a similar situation.

It is rare for employers in education to suspend senior leaders, but when serious allegations are made this course of action sometimes is taken. Many people facing this situation, even those who believe they are innocent, choose to resign rather than contest the allegations because of the stress of doing so.

Fortunately when this happened to me a few months ago I listened to ASCL advice and saw the process through, ending with vindication and reinstatement. The purpose of this article is to help anyone who may have to endure something similar. Although it is anonymous, I will be happy to talk to anyone who thinks this would benefit.

My ordeal began following introduction of the new teaching and learning responsibility (TLR) payments, when allegations were made that I had bullied staff. Within days, I was called to attend a meeting with the chair of governors at which I was suspended pending a full investigation.

The detailed allegations were not given and only really became clear at the end of the eventual disciplinary panel meeting, but I was advised by my ASCL field officer that if I refused to comply I would be summarily dismissed.

I had my wonderful assistant minute the suspension meeting and she had the presence of mind to record it with a dictaphone - everyone was too surprised to object and I would recommend this as a way of keeping a record of everything that is done.

Surviving the first week

The first few days are the most difficult by far and spouse and family support was essential. I understood entirely those who pretend to catch a train every day and eat their sandwiches in the park when they lose their jobs suddenly.

There is an overwhelming feeling of shame at not being where you are supposed to be and I found myself hiding the car in the garage during the day at first so the neighbours did not realise I was at home.

I found it too hard to tell any but the closest friends of my situation initially. There were days and days when nothing at all happened and I felt I was drifting, speculating about what would happen.

I needed to visit the doctor in the first week with various symptoms of stress. My sleep pattern went haywire and skin complaints flared up. After a while I started to drift into a depressive state but I was fortunate in never quite getting there.

I was offered sleeping tablets, beta blockers and anti-depressants at various times but in the end did not take any conventional medicine as everything seemed to mask the problem and I could just about cope without.

There was no local authority (LA) support as the officers made it clear they thought I was guilty, but one of the governors kept my head above water when I felt I would go under.

I was not allowed contact with the school at all but, ironically, this helped me as I could not even think about what was going on there. I did have a lot of phone calls from colleague heads who seemed to have a sort of rota. These supportive calls were very much appreciated.

My response to the situation followed the SAGA analysis: shock, anger, grief and acceptance, as in a bereavement. The first two stages lasted a few days but grief is the dangerous one and can often end up as depression. I was fortunate that events in my case prevented that happening.

Possibly the worst week of all was when the press got hold of the story. We were watching the papers every day and I worried for my family who had nothing to do with this. I took advice from ASCL headquarters and did not make a personal comment. I would recommend this as it will not do your cause any favours in the long run. The story died down for some time and when it was resurrected I was better able to cope.

Counter attack

The ASCL support was superb throughout and I took all the advice I was offered. In every situation, the allocated field officer will assess what course of action is best and in my case we visited the London solicitors of the association together several times.

They were quite clear that I was not guilty but that the LA was intending to dismiss me, so this made it a very serious case. There were a number of attempts by ASCL's solicitors to mediate with the LA but they appeared unwilling to engage in this process and most of the letters went unanswered.

The impression I got was that the LA was waiting for me to resign and were slow to take any action following my suspension. Under pressure, they finally began an investigation, which largely seemed to consist of interviewing aggrieved staff to try to establish a case for the prosecution. My understanding is that the governors should have elected a panel to undertake a neutral investigation; however I had lost all power to influence actions.

After nearly two months of suspension we were called by the LA to a fact finding meeting. As this was our first opportunity to put our case forward, we attended. It was a difficult meeting, but we were confident that all the charges were answered at the end and expected my reinstatement. Not at all - a letter arrived some days later to say I would face a disciplinary panel, for misconduct or possibly gross misconduct.

By now, however, I was feeling absolutely confident that there was nothing I had done wrong or forgotten and justice would prevail.

A major breakthrough was going with my spouse to stay with an old school friend and her husband in Paris for the weekend, having a fantastic time, and all four of us really talking things through. After that I stopped feeling embarrassed and let all my other friends know of the situation. Once I got to that stage, I knew I would be all right as friends were sympathetic and really supportive.

There were another two months before the disciplinary panel was held, and much of this was actually not too bad. We saw the solicitors and spent several days making sure we had prepared our case, with growing confidence. We talked about worst case scenarios and I came to terms with these. The LA continued to seek to persuade me to resign but we simply continued with the preparation of our case, dealing with whatever came our way.

When the day finally came, I found I enjoyed the panel meeting as it was the first time I had been able to have my say in front of an objective audience. Best of all, the panel cleared me unanimously, recommending reinstatement as soon as possible.

Return to work

I returned to school towards the end of a term and made a low key start, although I did make a point of seeing all the staff individually on my first day. This is potentially a very difficult thing to do and I used the support offered by three of the governors who came along with me.

I was aware that the pupils had heard all sorts of rumours as to why I had been away and many of them averted their eyes on the first day, a very difficult thing to deal with. This did not last and soon I was being welcomed back by many of them.

I was overwhelmed by the warmth of many of the staff and governors and wonder how many people in a similar situation would experience the same if they could just keep fighting. I found my sense of well-being only really returned once I was back in school - it would have been much harder had the outcome been different.

How did I manage to see this through? It would have been impossible without ASCL's support and my spouse's unfailing conviction that we must keep fighting.

From the start I kept a structure to my day, so that I did not sit watching daytime TV and moping. I got up as soon as my spouse left for work and went to the gym. It was amazing to see the improvement in my body shape and this kept me feeling good about myself.

I was fortunate that I still had some professional life through the association, so I could use my brain and meet colleagues. I also took on a role with a local twinning society to give me a project to manage and to feel I was learning new skills.

At home I undertook a couple of major practical projects, including some decorating I would never have had the time to tackle. These gave me a feeling of achievement and some purpose.

I did go to the cinema quite often in the afternoon - but so did Wittgenstein apparently after doing his philosophising in the morning - so I felt this was all right.

I went for counselling but did not find it particularly helped as the counsellor was aghast at what had happened. At the same time I started going for acupuncture - that was the best remedy of all.

Righteous anger is a wonderful motivator so that kept me going and I can honestly say I did not ever really consider writing that letter of resignation.

I would like to thank all those who gave me such tremendous support during these four months, especially my spouse, and to add that it is not all negative - I have rekindled some old friendships and learnt a lot about what matters in life during this time.

Personal support

The ASCL hotline is the first port of call for members who are in difficulty, whether they find themselves accused of or the victim of bullying or harassment. Call 0116 299 1122 and ask for the hotline officer on duty. He or she will discuss the details of the case with you and assign a field officer where necessary.

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