A head teacher at a special needs school who was convicted of wilfully assaulting two girls walked free from court today (Friday) after a judge suspended his six month jail term for two years.
Imposing the suspended sentence on 59-year-old Stephen Downes at Lisburn Magistrates Court, District Judge Rosemary Watters said it was "hard to imagine more vulnerable victims than those in this case".
Having heard how Downes intended to appeal the two convictions for child cruelty, speaking outside the court the girls' mothers said it illustrated how "his arrogance is overwhelming".
The mother of one of the girls, who was just 13 years old when she was assaulted by her teacher, revealed that her daughter has been so traumatised she has not been back to Parkview Special School.
"We didn't expect anything more than a suspended sentence but I think that two years suspended would have been a better reflection of what he put the children through," said one of the mums, adding that her daughter has been "disastrously affected".
At the end of a hearing last month, Judge Watters convicted Downes of two counts of child cruelty, finding him not guilty of a further charge of child cruelty and two additional similar charges were dropped on the last day of the hearing.
The offences all occured on dates between 29 November, 2010 and March 25, 2011.
Judge Watters had heard how Downes, from Glebe Gardens in Moira, was working in Parkview Special School and had been promoted to head of department.
Despite that, she found him guilty of grabbing and striking one of the girls after she drank another child's milk, and also of wilfully assaulting another female pupil when they were alone in a closed room together.
During the hearing three classroom assistants gave evidence of their "regret" at not having raised concerns about Downes' conduct earlier, recounting how, when Downes had been alone in a room with one of the pupils, she heard "a large bang and the stud wall began to vibrate".
When the pair emerged, the girl looked "distressed" while Downes came out with his arms folded and a "smirk on his face".
Today (Friday) defence lawyer Michael Boyd said that as per the evidence at the hearing, Downes did have issues with stress management and revealed that although he still maintains his innocence and intends to appeal the convictions, is "genuinely extremely sorry for the impact" his behaviour had on the pupils.
He said that when the offences came to light, Downes was suspended but that following his convictions he was sacked - and added that given the dismissal and his age, the particular circumstances that gave rise to such stress would not happen again.
The lawyer conceded that Downes "should never" have been alone in a closed room with any pupil but submitted that often, especially in a special school, stressful situations can develop in moments.
Sentencing Downes, Judge Watters said the case "definitely" met the criteria for a jail term but added that given his personal background and clear record, she was suspending it.
She warned Downes that should he commit any further offences, he would have to serve the six months in addition to any other sentence imposed but also told him she "did not expect that" he would.
A prepared statement from the disgraced teacher's legal team said the last two years have been a "living nightmare" for Downes.
It read: “Mr Downes is encouraged by the dismissal of three charges of wilful assault against him.
"At the same time Mr Downes strenuously denies the two remaining wilful assault charges that he has been convicted for and he will now be appealing those convictions.
"The last two years have been a living nightmare but Mr Downes is grateful for, and takes comfort from, the unwavering support of his friends and family.
"The accusations that he has had to face have stunned and saddened Mr Downes but he remains committed to clearing his name of any criminal wrongdoing."