Belfast Telegraph

Rape case sparks call for teacher protection

By Brendan McDaid and George Jackson

New measures to protect the reputation of teachers facing accusations of assault have been called for after a Londonderry man was acquitted of raping a 14-year-old pupil.

Organisations representing teachers in Northern Ireland have now called for an overhaul of protocols and the law to prevent innocent teachers and other childcare workers being stigmatised.

One union estimates that hundreds of allegations were now being made against teaching staff here each year.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said that it was dealing with around 50 accusations of assaults, including a small number of sexual assaults, levelled at teachers by pupils each year.

It said that in 96% of cases, right across the UK, the teachers accused were being found innocent.

The union spoke out after Derry school teacher Stewart Robert Smith was cleared of raping and indecently assaulting a 14-year-old girl almost a decade ago.

The Ulster Teachers’ Union (UTU), which counts Mr Smith among its members, has now called for meetings with the Department for Education and its PSNI and social services partners on the Child Protection Group to discuss the need for reform.

UTU general secretary Avril Hall-Callaghan said the union had recently passed a resolution advocating talks with the department and its partners.

“The group was set up to discuss issues like this and we want to ensure teachers are treated better than they are at the moment,” she said.

“Quite often in cases like this, the teachers are suspended pending an investigation, and we want some kind of protection for teachers.

“Sometimes the smallest allegation ends up in a teacher being suspended from their job.

“Even where allegations are made with absolutely no substance, the teacher feels as if they are guilty.

“Those are the sort of issues we need to get into. We need to get in there and examine how people are treated.”

She said that examining the protection for teachers who have been charged but not convicted is something the union may now raise with the PSNI.

Brendan Harron, senior official with INTO in Northern Ireland, warned that teachers who have been accused of assaults can end up being severely damaged by unfounded allegations.

“If it is an accusation of sexual assault, social services get involved, interview the person’s own children and the accused person may be told they can’t be alone with their own children.

“If the allegation is true there has to be child protection, but in 96% of cases in the UK, allegations of assault have been proven unfounded. Fewer than 5% are upheld.”

Mr Harron said it was now time to bring Northern Ireland’s legal position into line with that of England, where it is an offence to openly discuss or report an allegation against a teacher or other childcare worker, unless they’ve been charged.

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