Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Racist pupil loses legal bid over her suspension

A girl suspended from a Belfast grammar school over racist remarks about a classmate has failed in a legal challenge to the disciplinary action.

Lawyers for the mother of the Victoria College pupil claimed it was wrong to enforce such severe punishment for prolonged behavioural issues.

But a High Court judge dismissed the judicial review case at the first stage, ruling that it was bound to fail.

The girl, who cannot be named, was suspended twice this year, once in January and again in February.

The second suspension followed an incident where she was discovered writing racially offensive comments about another girl while in detention.

However, counsel for her mother argued that the school had acted unfairly.

Mr Justice Horner was told that a policy of accruing punishments was not properly followed. “The guidance makes it very clear that suspension is a last resort,” the family's barrister said.

“There were no real alternative measures used here.”

However, Tony McGleenan QC, for the school, disputed claims that the girl's mother was unaware of her difficulties.

He stressed that full information was given and other appropriate options explored before decisions were taken to suspend.

Mr McGleenan said that the girl's mother was brought in for discussions and to make any representations before the first suspension was imposed.

Dealing with the second suspension, he said: “The principal has a duty of care to all the pupils in the school.

“These offensive remarks are being written about another child in the same classroom. It's not a trivial matter, it's not something that can be passed over lightly and it's not something the principal can allow to go unchecked.

“The school has gone through a process of careful investigation given the sensitivity of this matter, and when the child eventually accepts, ‘I did write that particular unpleasant remark' the principal decides to bring the mother in to discuss the matter.”

Mr McGleenan added that the delay in bringing the challenge should also prove fatal.

“It's unfortunate for all concerned, including the child, that there is live litigation running almost a year after the first suspension was imposed,” he said.

Refusing leave to seek a judicial review, Mr Justice Horner declared: “I consider this case is certain to fail.” He rejected all grounds of challenge, saying the girl's mother was given an opportunity to state a case.

Given there was no chance of success, the judge said that it was not in the girl's interest to have proceedings “hanging over her head” while she is at the school.

His verdict was seen as a vindication for Victoria College.

Joe Moore of O'Reilly Stewart Solicitors, who represented Victoria College, said: “The school handled a difficult behavioural issue in a fair and balanced way and the court confirmed that litigation was simply not in the best interests of the child.”

Quotes

“Within the College we promote a positive approach to discipline. The core values of respect, tolerance and understanding underpin the school's inclusive ethos and we are determined that all pupils will develop a sense of self worth, respect and tolerance for others. Whilst we are disappointed that this particular case reached the stage where a parent felt it necessary to seek redress in the courts, we are reassured by the judge's conclusion that our policies and procedures were followed appropriately in the best interests of this child and of all other pupils in the school.” — Victoria principal Patricia Slevin

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