A special needs assistant has been awarded €250,000 by the High Court for bullying and harassment against a National School in County Kildare.
Ms. Una Ruffley worked as a special needs assistant for 14 years at the National School. Ms. Ruffley sued the Board of Management of St. Anne’s National School which provides education for children with special needs.
Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O’Neill said the case arose out of an incident on the 14th September 2009, when Mr. Ruffley was with a pupil in the school’s “sensory room”.
At issue was whether it was normal practice that the door to the sensory room should be locked or just closed. The Court found that locking the door was common practice among the assistants as it was generally accepted that the sensory programme should be done without interruption.
The Principal, Ms. Dempsey, tried to gain entry three times before Ms. Ruffley opened the door which later gave rise to disciplinary moves against her. The Judge said that he was satisfied from the evidence that it was general practice to lock the door at the time. For child protection/health and safety reasons, it was accepted that the door should not be locked, he said. It was extraordinary that up to the day of this incident no issue has arisen about the locking of the door even though the school had a comprehensive safety statement.
Following the incident, Ms. Dempsey brought Ms. Ruffley into a meeting warning her of disciplinary action but later wrote to her that there would not be any action and a series of procedures were being put in place to ensure it did not happen again including three month review of Ms. Ruffley’s performance. Difficulties arose later about the filling in of a form relating to the review of her work which then lead Ms. Dempsey to wrongly characterise it as a “falsification” of the form by the SNA.
Mr. Dempsey then brought the matter of the door locking incident and of the alleged failure of Ms. Ruffley to improve her performance to a Board of Management meeting which recommended that the SNA receive a formal warning and that her next salary increment be deferred.
The Judge said that while Ms. Dempsey told the Court she outlined the full history of the matter to the Board, he did not think it (Board) could have reached the adverse conclusions it did unless it had been “grossly mislead” by the Principal about the true circumstances.
The Court found that Ms. Ruffley was unfairly singled out for punishment probably because the school Board was given an untrue, highly biased account of what had happened by the then School Principal. Mr. Justice O’Neill found that the Board continued to treat her unfairly even when they were made aware of the impact of their unjust decision and that Ms. Rouhgly had suffered a definite and identifiable psychiatric injury as a result of her treatment and continues to, and will continue to, suffer significantly into the future. Judge O’Neill awarded her €140,000.00, €276.00 for loss of past and future earnings and €115,000.00 in general damages.
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