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Dinner lady grooming row is branded ‘PC madness’

By Lesley-Anne Henry

Published 09/10/2010

The dinner lady said it was okay for the pupil to have a biscuit
The dinner lady said it was okay for the pupil to have a biscuit

The row over the dinner lady who gave a child a biscuit has been branded “political correctness gone mad”.

Pat Lavery was working in the kitchen at St Mary’s Primary School in Brookeborough, Co Fermanagh, when a child, who was also a relative, asked for a biscuit.

Mrs Lavery instructed a colleague who was serving biscuits at the time to give one to the child.

However, a day later a teacher approached the catering supervisor and said her actions could be interpreted as “grooming” under Child Protection legislation.

The incident happened in May 2008, however, details have only just emerged.

Chairman of the Stormont education committee Mervyn Storey said that while rules were there to protect children and staff, this was a case of “political correctness gone too far”.

“There are some serious questions that need to be asked of the employing authority which was responsible for the staff and the school,” he said.

“What steps were taken by the CCMS ( Council for Catholic Maintained Schools) to ensure that they dealt adequately with the situation?

“As far as the board was concerned this was not a child protection issue. I have no doubt that had it been a child protection issue the staff member would have been suspended and a full investigation launched.

“I think that this is an example of bureaucracy and political correctness getting in the way of common sense. The problem with common sense is that it is not very common.”

Mrs Lavery had to attend three meetings, firstly with the acting principal, then two with the school principal. One of the meetings with the principal lasted over an hour and he wanted her to attend a fourth.

She then decided to leave her job as she felt she had been subjected to a “grilling” and made a complaint to the Western Education and Library Board (WELB).

The NI Ombudsman Tom Frawley investigated the board's handling of the case.

His report found that the board failed to “promptly and appropriately” address a complaint the woman made about her treatment

WELB has apologised to Mrs Lavery.

‘Horrendous years’ sparked by an innocent act

Speaking for the first time, Pat Lavery’s husband Owen told of the ‘horrendous two-plus years’ his wife had to endure

She was made to feel like she had done something wrong. And she also became the subject of malicious gossip and rumour in her home town.

Pat Lavery, the Co Fermanagh catering supervisor who unwittingly found herself at the centre of a grooming row, has suffered two-and-a-half “horrendous years”.

Her ordeal began in January 2008 when she was working as unit catering supervisor at St Mary’s PS in Brookeborough, Co Fermanagh. A pupil at the school, who was also a relative, asked for a biscuit and Mrs Lavery told a catering assistant who was serving biscuits at the time to give one to the child.

The next day, however, the acting principal came to the kitchen and informed Mrs Lavery that under the Child Protection Act, her actions could be seen as “grooming a child”.

And when the principal returned some time later, Mrs Lavery was hauled in for a series of meetings which left her feeling so upset and confused that she left work — even though it had quickly been established she had done nothing wrong.

Yesterday, speaking publicly for the first time, her husband Owen told the BBC: “It has been a horrendous two-plus years for my wife because there was this shadow hanging over her like she had done something wrong. And even after the incident was reported to the child protection office of the Western Education and Library Board and HSC and it had been investigated. They came back and put in writing just a few short weeks after the incident in 2008 that there could be no perception of grooming and that she had not acted improperly.”

Following the school’s and the WELB’s handling of the incident, Mrs Lavery made a complaint to the Northern Ireland Ombudsman, Tom Frawley.

In his report, which was released last month, Mr Frawley was highly critical of the Western Education and Library Board for failing to investigate the woman’s complaints describing it as “maladministration”.

The Ombudsman recommended that an apology to the woman be made in writing by the chief executive of the board and a consolatory payment made.

Mr Lavery said that since the issue had been resolved his wife had returned to work at the school and stressed that the findings of the Ombudsman's report were directed at the WELB rather than the school.

Yesterday, the WELB said it would issue an apology to the woman as well as a consolatory payment. It is understood that a settlement was also reached between the school and the woman through the Labour Relations Agency, prior to her returning to work.

A spokeswoman for the WELB said: “The board has noted the findings of the Ombudsman’s Report issued in September 2010 and is presently actioning the recommendations.

“Neither the board nor any of its employees were, at any time, party to any accusation of grooming against the unit catering supervisor referred to in recent Press reports. The board at no time considered this to be a child protection issue. If it had, then appropriate action would have been implemented immediately.”

In a statement, St Mary's Primary School said the issues between the individuals involved had been resolved using mediation through the Labour Relations Agency.

“A confidentiality agreement was signed by all parties involved so it would not be appropriate to comment any further,” it said.

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