As the precipitating incident began, it was nothing out of the ordinary, as far as MySpecial School students were concerned. A young student (call him Jethro) brought to school a toy that he had built. Unfortunately, the toy included a sharp blade and this presented a danger to others. The toy was removed from Jethro’s possession without any drama (Jethro would typically react negatively, and with possible violence).
Later in the day, in a separate incident, Jethro’s behaviour became threatening and, as acting principal in the boss’ absence, I made the decision to follow standard procedure and take Jethro home to his mother. Jethro refused to get into our bus until he had been given his toy, which by then had been “classified” as a weapon by the clerical assistant, who should have had no input whatsoever into the student management process.
I had taken Jethro outside the building, locking the door behind me, in order to limit the chances of agitation for other students, and I rang the clerical assistant, instructing her to bring the toy to me so that I could return it to Jethro’s mother, with the request that, in future, she check to make sure that Jethro was not bringing potentially dangerous items to school.
The clerical assistant refused to follow my instruction. It was here that the molehill rapidly became a mountain. I repeated the instruction and she again refused to comply, saying that the “weapon” had to be retained at the school. I instructed her to give the phone to Susan, who expressed her support for the clerical assistant’s behaviour.
Eventually, after much time-wasting, I persuaded Jethro to get into the bus. I took him home and spoke to his mum about his toy.
I was a bit pissed off with the clerical assistant and with Susan, hence my second set of notes for the boss. I’ve deleted the less relevant sections but they are still lengthy and may be a bit boring to read, but they set the scene:
26 / 27 July – Information for The Boss:
- My anger arising from the delay in taking Jethro home was initiated by . . . . . . my judgement in managing Jethro was being questioned, and that my strategy was being circumvented. As the person responsible for making decisions based upon first-hand assessments of the situation, I became extremely frustrated . . . . . I suspected that Susan, and probably the clerical assistant, wished to operate according to their own agenda. . . .
- On reflection . . . I concluded . . . . concerns which have been with me for some months must have been at least a significant contributing factor in causing me to become extremely angry. I had canvassed some of these concerns with you around the middle of June.
- I perceived a lack of co-operation today (Thursday), involving both Susan and the clerical assistant, which I felt was designed to prevent my plan for managing Jethro from being carried out. I have no evidence to support this view, aside from my observations of their joint behaviour at work before, during and after this incident, and the suspicions volunteered by some staff members.
- My perception of the relationship between Susan and the clerical assistant, . . . . is based upon my own observations and upon the feelings of staff as reported to me when staff have complained of their treatment by these people. . . . . these perceptions (which) are currently having a serious adverse affect upon staff morale. Concerns in relation to these specific issues, as reported to me, or raised in me, include:
* The very strong and widely held belief that the clerical assistant sees herself as a key member of the school executive team, with managerial responsibilities in relation to students and authority to give instructions to all teaching and non-teaching staff, . . . . . I (do) perceive a very close relationship between you and the clerical assistant, which tends to explain the beliefs of some staff members, . . . . .
* The common belief amongst staff that Susan and the clerical assistant work closely together, . . . . both separate from the remainder of staff. . . . . I believe that Susan finds it convenient to be the clerical assistant’s confidant . . . . . I believe that the clerical assistant is convinced, firstly, of her own ability to make accurate assessments of students’ and staff needs, and, secondly, that she has the power to make and enforce decisions in both respects. . . . . Unfortunately, the clerical assistant’s views often conflict with mine.
* My perception of a generally held view amongst most staff that any confrontation with the clerical assistant will bring them into disfavour with you. . . . . . I believe that the reluctance of staff to make complaints about their treatment by the clerical assistant, directly to you, is a strong indicator of their feeling that to do so would be pointless. . . . . I have also been affected by such a feeling. Further to this, staff have begun to keep their feelings from me, refraining from making complaints about school management issues. I have reason to suspect that staff believe that I am unable to make a significant difference to the situation, and that to bring their concerns to me simply adds to my load. I am seriously concerned that the former excellent relationship between you and your staff has been compromised. I am also very aware of the fact that staff have been attempting to maintain a “business as usual” façade which has prevented you from recognising the degree of their distress. The conflict has been kept very much “underground” and has therefore not been immediately apparent to anyone who has not been a part of it.
- . . . . the cumulative effect of on-going annoyances, combined with some specific, more substantial events, has ensured that both Susan and the clerical assistant have, to a large degree, alienated almost all other staff. . . . . . Criticism of Susan’s behaviour usually relates to her sometimes “offhanded” manner towards staff, but primarily to the perception that she is aligning herself with the clerical assistant in an attempt to create some sort of power base. . . . . staff find the clerical assistant to be abrupt, secretive, superior and self-centred. I support these views. I find the clerical assistant’s manner at times to be condescending, . . . . I have experienced body language, facial expression and tone of voice which clearly indicate that the clerical assistant has felt contempt for me, for my thoughts and for my behaviour. I suspect that the clerical assistant continues to believe that I am attempting to undermine your authority by casting doubts upon your management of situations (specifically the Jones issue), as evidenced in her mind by my support for the strategy in which Laura and Mick prepared discussion notes and volunteered to speak with you, as representatives of staff, about staff concerns re Jones. I am aware of the following specific instances which may serve as examples of the clerical assistant’s behaviours which offend staff:
* The suspected involvement, with Susan, in the prevention of staff discussing concerns re Jones with you.
* The belief held by Laura, and others, that Laura was “set up” at debriefing when she was called upon to explain staff concerns to you, without the benefit of the prepared notes. . . . .
* The fact that the clerical assistant . . . . to give instruction to Jill in relation to Carla’s morning supervision; that the clerical assistant was offended when Jill objected to being spoken to in such a manner; the fact that the clerical assistant appeared offended when I raised the issue of Carla’s supervision at debriefing.
* The abrupt way in which Jill was again given instruction (not asked) by the clerical assistant. In this instance, remarkable for its absurd pettiness, Jill was directed not to place items on top of the staffroom fridge, on the day on which the District Superintendent was visiting. . . . Jill was angered by the clerical assistant’s rudeness as much as she was by the fact that she was being ordered to remove her things from the fridge top.
* The clerical assistant’s focus upon herself as the person to convey information and advice at debriefing, in such a way as to reflect her sense of being in a position of power. Her implied suggestions that some matters are only for the ears of a select few, annoy staff.
* The clerical assistant’s use of “I” to further suggest her position of power e.g. “I arranged with the School Counsellor to collect (a student’s) mother ….” ; “I haven’t had a fax from (a student’s) doctor in relation to his fits so I can’t tell you what has to happen…..”. Frequent use of “The Boss and I” to begin sentences during conversations and in reports at de-briefing.
* The use of “name-dropping” in the presence of staff . . . . as a strategy to set herself apart from the remainder of staff. . . . . creating the impression that the clerical assistant’s role was pivotal if the (school’s official) opening were to be a success.
* Whispered conversations with Susan, . . . . which cease abruptly when someone enters. The preference for secrecy is made obvious to the person entering.
* In my own case, clear signs that the clerical assistant is offended when I elect not to take her advice in matters of management and the clerical assistant’s current practice of interjecting and/or contradicting and/or qualifying or explaining when I am speaking with staff on management matters. A clear example presented itself this afternoon (Friday) when I was attempting to explain the practical considerations behind the change of practice for (a student’s) management. . . . .the clerical assistant talked over the top of me, explaining an element of the plan which I was moving towards but which I did not yet want to discuss. This had two effects – to enable the clerical assistant to assert her perceived superiority whilst painting me as less than competent, and to cause me to begin again, thereby wasting time. . . . the clerical assistant assumed my opening remarks were the beginning of another perceived “attack” by me upon you, that I was about to criticise the strategy which you had outlined to me (and with which I totally agree), and she quickly cut me off with her own explanation for staff.
- Other concerns related to me by staff, and shared by me include:
* A perceived lack of communication about student issues . . . . The frustration of staff is increased by the perception that the clerical assistant may, and does, know everything which happens, but that other staff are permitted to know only selected information.
* The sense that technology has priority in the expenditure of time and money, at the expense of items deemed as important or more important by staff e.g. we have a digital video camera before playground seats and a bin for playground rubbish.
* The perception that some student-specific issues attract a lower priority than matters felt by staff to be less important e.g. a lack of action in response to the SRC initiative to have a handball court painted near the verandah.
These additional “sample” concerns are certainly secondary to the main problem, but they attain greater importance and increase staff frustration because staff feel powerless to do anything about them.
- Suggested course of action to resolve the situation:
* You might consult with The School Counsellor re her views on a suitable plan of action. I have spoken with The School Counsellor at length about my concerns and she may communicate to you her view regarding my perceptions, as well as her thoughts on achieving a resolution. I would be happy for The School Counsellor to read this document if you feel it is appropriate.
* You might brief the clerical assistant on the issues which I have raised, hopefully emphasising the fact that my concerns are management concerns only and do not reflect personal issues.
* You might separately brief Susan, . . . . I believe that Susan may be feeling very uncomfortable about the situation with Jethro’s management on Thursday, . . . . . I am confident that Susan and I would be able to discuss all issues without achieving a negative result.
* You might arrange a group discussion, perhaps chaired by The School Counsellor, so that the clerical assistant, Susan and I could present our views openly to each other in a non-threatening environment.
* You might ask another member of staff, who shares the concerns which I have outlined, to voluntarily participate in such a discussion.
* Following such a discussion you might talk with The School Counsellor to analyse the outcomes of the discussion, speak again with any individual, and perhaps convene a second meeting in order to make us aware of the conclusions drawn from the analysis.
Thank you for supporting me during what has been a very demanding few days at the end of a very frustrating few months.
Discussion notes: (these were my personal notes for use in discussion with the boss. I did not give him a copy)
- The issue of Jethro’s management, whilst most annoying, served to revive concerns unresolved after many weeks, which made me extremely angry. The issue of Jethro’s management should be considered separately as the basis for discussion of general principles.
- My unresolved concerns centre upon my own perception of distrust which the clerical assistant feels towards me, and . . . . behaviour in seeking to counteract my management strategies, which I believe that she perceives as my attempts to undermine your position . . . .
- My own concerns are heightened by my perceptions of staff reactions . . . . the clerical assistant is seen as taking a management role which she is neither equipped nor entitled to hold.
- I am further worried about the decline in staff morale . . . . Staff are not expressing their true feelings openly but are concealing them behind pretence or silence as I have done. “After-hours” debriefing has become the norm.
- The .. . . changed behaviour, evident since early this year, may reflect her need to seek some self-actualisation through her work. . . . . the clerical assistant has simply “gone overboard”.
- The clerical assistant the “person” offends nobody. The clerical assistant the “S.S.A.” offends most of us through her apparent defence of you against non-existent attacks by staff and through her apparent assumption of a “superior” position.
- Susan appears to have been caught up in the clerical assistant’s problem and may be a victim more than anything else.
- Staff who have held you in the highest regard, because of this regard, feel unable to be critical of you . . . . whilst at the same time feeling angry and confused. The perceived “conspiracy” between Susan and the clerical assistant is our way of making sense of the situation.
- I have some doubts about my objectivity, feeling angry at the clerical assistant’s manner towards me, and at the fact that what was a cohesive and effective unit has been reduced to a dispirited group. However I am confident that my perceptions accurately reflect the staff situation . . . . .
Can you imagine what we might have achieved if we had been able to devote the time and energy which we spent in dealing with this shit, to supporting our students?
The boss read the notes but would not discuss anything with me. Instead, he concluded that there were personal differences between myself and the clerical assistant, which might be resolved in a meeting to be mediated, not by himself, but by the School Counsellor.
The meeting was a waste of time. The clerical assistant took the opportunity to make personal attacks upon me, accusing me of cowardice and jealousy. Our “impartial mediator” did nothing but take notes.
Between August and December, the situation simply stagnated. The boss continued in denial and the toxic work environment persisted.
On December 6, matters reached critical mass and the clerical assistant and Susan finally gave me sufficient grounds to make a formal complaint. This letter explains:
6 December 2001
Attention: Federation Representative, MySpecial School.
Prior to recess this morning, I went to the staff room to use the photocopier. The clerical assistant and Susan were there. The clerical assistant asked me if I knew what had happened to a message about Susan’s daughter which she (the clerical assistant) had left on the signing-on book. The message had been written below my communication, dated (yesterday) 5/12, about Susan’s absence.
I told the clerical assistant that I had thrown away yesterday’s communication. It is my habit to remove the day’s communication sheet when it is no longer required in order to avoid confusion on the following day. This morning I replaced yesterday’s sheet with the notice advising of a teacher’s absence. I assumed that the message written by the clerical assistant had been placed there yesterday, and that I had not yet seen it. I expected that other members of staff would have seen the message yesterday.
The clerical assistant told me that the message had not been seen by staff. I apologised to both the clerical assistant and Susan for my error. Susan said that other messages were not thrown away, and I understood that she was upset. There was some conversation between Susan and the clerical assistant.
The clerical assistant then said that she would file this incident away with the rest in the archives for future reference. I took this to mean that the clerical assistant regarded my action in disposing of yesterday’s communication sheet as a deliberate and hurtful attempt to create mischief.
I chose to make no further comment, and continued with my work.
I believe that the clerical assistant’s comments are suggestive of the following:
- I use behaviours which are offensive to the clerical assistant and Susan. The behaviours are on-going and deliberate and an archival record needs to be made of them.
- My behaviour in the workplace is unprofessional and divisive.
- My personal behaviour is immature and petty.
In my view, the clerical assistant’s comments are insulting and degrading, and impute to me, the lowest standard of personal and professional behaviour.
I ask that these notes be included in the minutes of today’s meeting, so that I can register my objection to the clerical assistant’s comments.
This is a copy of the formal complaint, which I gave to the boss, and which he refused to deal with, instead forwarding it to the District Superintendent. Again names have been changed:
7 December 2001.
Details of The Complaint:
- On 6 December 2001, the clerical assistant made remarks which caused offense to me. Details are recorded in my notes to the Federation Representative, MySpecial School, a copy of which is attached.
- On December 6 2001, I was affronted by the clerical assistant’s tone of voice and manner, as detailed in dot-point 5 of the notes “A Situation Assessment – 7 December 2001”, provided for the Principal, MySpecial School, a copy of which is attached.
- On December 6 2001, in my capacity as Acting Assistant Principal, I became extremely concerned about the inappropriate behaviours demonstrated by the clerical assistant towards two teachers as detailed in dot-point 4 of the notes “A Situation Assessment – 7 December 2001”, provided for the Principal, MySpecial School, a copy of which is attached. I include these matters in the complaint in my capacity as Acting Assistant Principal.
- Despite issues of concern regarding staff welfare having been raised as long ago as 18 June 2001, no resolution has been achieved.
The Outcomes Sought:
- The principal to convene and chair meetings to be attended by the teaching staff and school counsellor, at which the issues raised in my sets of notes provided for the Principal, MySpecial School dating back to 18 June, be fully addressed, problems identified, and a draft resolution plan formulated. Emerging issues not addressed in my notes should also be treated and included in the resolution plan.
- The principal to offer to all support staff, the opportunity to speak separately and privately with him of any workplace concerns which they might have. Each member of the support staff should be advised that a supportive person of their choosing would be welcome to attend any such meeting.
- The principal, acting assistant principal and acting executive teacher work together to include within the draft resolution plan proposed by teaching staff, issues raised by support staff, where appropriate.
- The principal presents to a meeting of all staff the draft resolution plan for ratification.
- The principal to oversee the implementation and evaluation of the resolution plan.
- The duties and responsibilities of the Senior School Assistant be clearly defined and fully documented.
- The duties and responsibilities of the Senior School Assistant will specifically exclude any involvement in the management of teaching staff, and will be precisely defined where any supervision of support staff is required.
- The clerical assistant will be made aware of my complaint regarding her offensive remarks and affronting manner towards me on 6 December 2001.
- The clerical assistant will be made aware of my complaint, in my capacity as Acting Assistant Principal, regarding her behaviour towards two teachers on 6 December 2001.
- The clerical assistant will be asked to respect the dignity of all staff members at MySpecial School.
If you’re still reading, stay with it. The excrement is about to explode against the wind-making device.
It was early in 2002 before I was called to District Office for a meeting with the Superintendent, regarding my formal complaint. As I sat alone in the waiting area, the clerical assistant and, perhaps, her support person (Susan had moved on to a new school), rounded the corner, having just concluded their meeting with the Superintendent. They ignored me and I said nothing in return.
The Superintendent called me into his office. I was given ample opportunity to explain my position and, before leaving, asked that, as part of his investigation of my complaint, he consult the copies of the notes which I had prepared for the boss, in relation to the deteriorating situation at MySpecial School. By this stage, the manila folder which I gave him was the best part of two centimetres thick.
In retrospect, I guess it was me who had just thrown the first turd.
There were no more meetings with the Superintendent, and no outcome from the first meeting, before the arrival of the CPID letter on 13 February 2002. The clerical assistant had thrown the second turd, but hers seemed huge in comparison to the one which I had chucked.
So that’s how it all started. I guess I could have abbreviated the background story a bit, but it was important to me to get the whole thing out there.
I’ll try to be economical in relating the next bit.
I was naïve enough to think that I could remain at MySpecial School whilst the investigation proceeded. I was wrong. I transferred duties to District Office, and started preparing my response to the charge. The problem was that I didn’t know what it was that I actually accused of.
THIS INSANE, INHUMANE AND IMMORAL HIATUS CONTINUED FOR FIVE MONTHS.
As an alternative to describing, in detail, the impact upon my family and me, of that intolerable period in suspended animation, I ask you to imagine that you have been told that, at some future time, you may be charged with assault and that, if found guilty, you will not only lose your job, but you may be gaoled.
After five months of enforced inaction, I thought that I was finally able to hit back when this letter arrived in the middle of July 2002. Again the conversion from a PDF to Word file has not been entirely successful:
CHILD PROTECTION INVESTIGATION
PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL
Mr Julian May
Campbelltown District Office Cnr Lindesay & Lithgow Streets CAMPBELLTOWN NSW 2560
Dear Mr May
As you are aware allegations have been made that you engaged in conduct that could amount to improper conduct of a physical nature, against students. You are aware also that the matter was reported to the Child Protection Investigation Directorate (CPID) of the Department and is being investigated by Mr _________ Senior Investigator, CPID.
At this stage of the investigation, which is still ongoing, you are offered the opportunity to respond to the following allegations:
It is alleged that while employed as Relieving Assistant Principal, at _________School, you failed to follow proper restraint practices, in accordance with the Part Professional Response Training, when:
On 28 November 2001, at lunchtime, in the Principals office, you: grabbed a student, namely _______ by the shoulders, and forcibly pushed _________ to a seat;
On 28 November 2001, in an office occupied by you and the Relieving Executive Teacher, you:
at about 20pm, grabbed a student, namely __________ , and threw him to the floor, and;
at about 30pm, pushed ________ to the ground again, with force, because he would not stay seated in the withdrawal chair, and,
placed your knee, with force, on _________back to keep him restrained on the floor;
On 6 December 2001, you:
in a classroom, grabbed a student, namely ______________ by the arm unnecessarily, and later;
in the school hall, pushed _____________ through the door when releasing him.
On 13 February 2002, at about 12.30pm, on the concrete verandah outside the school building, when restraining a student, namely ____________ you used excessive physical force to hold _________ face down on the concrete.
On 4 December 2001, while employed as Relieving Assistant Principal, at ___________ School, in an office occupied by you and the Relieving Executive Teacher, during a “withdrawal” with a student, namely___________, you displayed threatening behaviour towards __________by sitting within half a metre of him, blocking him into a corner.
It is alleged that while employed as Relieving Assistant Principal, at____________School, when you physically restrained _______on 28 November 2001, as indicated above, you failed to follow a verbal direction given to you previously by Mr __________Principal of __________ School, that ________ was not to be restrained in the Principal’s absence, unless in extreme circumstances.
Your response regarding these instances of alleged improper conduct may be provided in writing or at interview.
Any written reply should be provided to this office within fourteen (14) days of the date of this letter.
Alternatively, if you wish to provide your comments in an interview, please contact Mr __________ who will make the appropriate arrangements.
I remind you of your professional responsibilities during the course of the investigation and the availability of support services should these be required.
You may also wish to seek advice from the New South Wales Teachers Federation, on 9217 2100.
Should you have any enquiries please contact Mr _________, on 9266 8070.
10 July 2002
By clicking on the reference below, you may be able to access a scanned copy of the original letter:
I immediately faxed the boss at school asking him to dig out all of the records on my list, which I could use to disprove the allegations.
I waited for a couple of weeks and hand-delivered another request to his office desk, after hours.
Still, nothing happened.
After a reasonable amount of time had passed, I asked the District Superintendent to instruct my boss to provide the documents.
Eventually, the boss turned up at District Office with a folder containing some, but not all of the documents that I needed. Without making eye contact with me, he gave me a folder, mumbled something unintelligible and left.
In early September 2002, I received yet another letter detailing further allegations of misconduct. Clearly, things weren’t going to plan at school and the clerical assistant felt the need to hammer a few more nails into my coffin.
Despite the fact that, due to the failure of my boss to provide adequate documentation, I had barely been able to respond to the allegations, in early December 2002, about a year after the major incident which inspired all this crap, I received a letter which told me that “there is insufficient evidence to establish that the conduct occurred and the matter will not proceed to disciplinary action”.
Please note, the letter did not say that the accusations were false, that I was not guilty of misconduct. It said that the accusations could not be proved.
Whilst the outcome was a much-welcomed early Christmas present for me and mine, this response left too great an avenue for doubt.
So, I attacked the process used by the CPID, but that’s material for another rant.
Then, I went back to work at MySpecial School, but that’s a completely separate story.