Over a period of ten months I have been supporting a family who have been involved in a situation that has exposed the evasive and unprofessional nature of a school board of a Catholic Maintained school.
What began last September as a relatively small issue escalated to a point of complexity during which this school board displayed a level of contempt worthy of any self respecting fascist. The scenario below involves a post-primary school, a child, his family, a school principal, the school board and the Catholic Council for Maintained schools (CCMS). As you read this keep in mind that the Catholic Council for Maintained Schools have a responsibility under legislation to ensure the effective management of Catholic schools by Boards of Governors.
To give you an idea of what went on.......
In Sept 2014 a child's right to freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and thought were breached when attempts were made to coerce him into signing the publicly vaunted 'Peace scroll'. The 'peace scroll' is an attempt by the Rev David Latimer to create a world record. Signing this scroll should have been optional due to it's non-curricular and political nature. However, for one child a refusal to sign left him feeling singled out, belittled and devalued. During this incident the child was told by a teacher that he would be 'the only the child in the north not to have signed' and was further questioned as to whether his refusal was sectarian in nature. When this child reacted by using a word the school have termed inappropriate the school decided to punish him. In attempting to punish the child the school principal refused to look at the situation in the broader context and imposed two after school detentions. This was deemed justifiable under the school's blanket policy which makes no provision for contributing factors or for the individual circumstances of each case.
Both the School and CCMS deny that any breach of this child's rights took place.
This entire situation overshadowed the child's GCSE year with the child adamant he would not be punished for challenging what he viewed as “hypocrisy”. The child based his decision not to sign the scroll on Rev Latimer's service in the British Army and with him being stationed in Afghanistan. The child also raised concerns over what he views as Reverend Latimer's “selective” approach to local human rights issues.
When the parents questioned the school principal over his decision to impose two detentions and what circumstances if any he had taken into consideration the Principal immediately cut off communication with them and escalated the issue to stage 4 of the school's complaints procedure. Stage 4 of the school's complaints procedure requires a written submission to the Chair of the school board from parents.
A sub-committee of the board who later claimed to have thoroughly investigated the case and the parents complaint upheld the Principal's decision. It's worth keeping in mind that the parents had not lodged any formal compliant at this time. When they raised this matter with the chair of the sub-committee he explained that their written correspondence to the principal was used to formulate a complaint on their behalf. This did two things:
1. It denied the parents the right to decide on the scope and nature of their complaint.
2.It was in breach of stage 4 of the school's complaints procedure which requires a written submission from parents.
The school and CCMS considered these actions to be reasonable.
In recent days the child's parents have learned that this sub-committee kept no minutes of their deliberations. This might explain why the sub-committee wrote to the parents using plain paper as opposed to official school stationary as is normal practice. The school acknowledged the need to use school stationary yet failed to reveal that they kept no minutes or record of the meeting. CCMS said this would not happen again. This should never have happened to start with.
When the parents later submitted their own complaint in line with stage 4 of the school policy the board completely ignored it. When the school were asked to produce a copy of the complaint formulated and thoroughly investigated by the sub-committee they could not do it as no minutes or record had been kept, therefore no complaint existed. This in itself presents the following questions ... Did any such meeting ever take place? And is the Principals word gospel?
What is extremely concerning is the school board's Chairperson had the audacity to accuse the parents of being dismissive of the efforts of the sub-committee overlooking that he himself had failed in his responsibility under the Department of Education guidelines which states, that the chairperson has responsibility for all meetings and must ensure that minutes of ALL meetings are retained.
CCMS have refused to acknowledge the chairperson's failure in this.
The board also ignored instructions from the Information Commissioner to fulfil their obligations under Freedom of Information Legislation and to provide clarification on documents requested by the parents. The school claimed to have fulfilled their role. CCMS merely acknowledged that the school had not.
The parents concerned about the impact this was having on their child took their child to a counsellor. They then requested to meet with the child's form teacher to discuss the counsellor's report with her. However this meeting was stopped from proceeding by the Board of Governors on the basis of 'the ongoing issue with the board'.
The school lied claiming the parents had wanted to discuss the detentions and not the counsellors report whereas CCMS acknowledged this but did not address it despite being asked if this was common practice.
Subsequently the parents were further refused the right to have representation for their child during the one and only meeting they were afforded with the school board, a meeting which came nine months after the incident. When arriving at the school the parents were told that school policy does not provide for third party input. As such the meeting did not take place, with the parents refusing to enter a meeting without a representative.
Following this the parents and their legal representative ( a retired human rights lawyer with over 40 years experience) were escorted from school premises. This refusal and exit was witnessed by an elected representative for the area. This treatment contravenes guidance by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission which has been published by the Department of Education. When this was pointed out to the board Chairperson he merely replied “I don't accept that”.
CCMS said the school board acted in accordance with school policy.
It is worth noting that in a recent question submitted to the Education Minister he had this to say:
The Board of Governors manages each Catholic Maintained School on a day to day basis in line with a Scheme of Management provided by CCMS. The Council may challenge a school to raise its standards through the Board of Governors and may also direct a Board on the implementation of legislation and policies.
Finally, a school board committee consisting of the chair, vice chair, parent representative, local priest and the community representative upheld the findings of the sub-committee. Which effectively meant upholding the outcome of an investigation of which there is no minutes or record.
Yet the school claim to have dealt with the entire situation adequately with CCMS describing their handling as reasonable.
In addition to the final response the child's parents received a letter from the board Secretary/School Principal informing them that their child would be expected to fulfill two after school detentions should he be offered a place in sixth form. With the above factors in mind ask yourself, is this in the best interests of this child or for the benefit of incompetent, unprofessional and egotistical autocrats?
In an attempt to bring some common sense to the proceedings the child's parents tried to meet with the parent representative of the board, yet for the duration of this entire fiasco they were refused any such meeting despite multiple requests being submitted.
As this comes to an end, a matter that should have never made it outside of the school assembly hall from the outset has exposed the school board in question as being ineffective, unprofessional, non transparent and unaccountable. It has exposed CCMS a group acting under the wing of the Catholic Church as not having learned from previous incidents when the Church has closed ranks and have attempted to silence people. Both the school and CCMS have tried to tell the parents to go away, I can tell you this is a red rag to a bull. CCMS are a publicly funded body and the days of dictating to anyone are over as to quote the parents this is “Northern Ireland not North Korea”.
The parents would acknowledge a comment from the Bishop of Derry, Rev. McKeown who replied to them after they wrote to him. Bishop McKeown who has knowledge in these matters agreed with the parents that a common sense approach should have been taken and expressed concern that such a small matter had used up so much time and energy. In contrast, Bishop John McAreavey the Chairperson of CCMS has not even had the decency to acknowledge or respond to two separate letters the parents of the child in question sent to him.
As for Rev Latimer he was contacted by the parents. He promised to address the situation and return to them, yet to date has done neither.