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In the dock over deaths of children

Two primary teachers charged with the unintentional manslaughter of pupils appeared in court last week.

The unrelated incidents that led to the deaths of two children both happened at school. In December 1996, a 10-year-old girl climbed on a chair to sit on the sill of an open window at a school outside Paris. Her accused teacher, Philippe Boubet, was occupied packing away paints.

The girl lost her balance and fell out of the window. She died the next day. Following the dismissal of a charge against the education ministry at an earlier hearing, the girl's parents continued to seek legal redress.

Last week, the state prosecutor called for the teacher to be let off - but the final verdict will not be given until December.

In the second incident, which happened in January 2001 at a Paris school, the teacher, Astrid Gaultier, allowed five pupils to remain unsupervised in their third-floor classroom to finish some work during break.

After leaving the room one of them, a 10-year-old boy, slid down the banisters, fell off and died. The prosecuting counsel has demanded a six-month suspended sentence, and judgement will be given next month.

Eight colleagues testified in defence of Ms Gaultier, who said in the last primary year it was normal to leave pupils unsupervised in some circumstances, to accustom them to a degree of autonomy before starting secondary school.

Teachers' union SUD Education organised a demonstration outside the Paris law courts on the day of Ms Gaultier's court appearance. The union said its members were all concerned because any of them could be caught up in an accident.

"How can we continue to carry out our job in conditions which are becoming more and more difficult?" said a representative.

The two teachers found themselves in the dock despite a change in legislation in 2000 which relaxed the law covering liability of public employees in accidents. The penal code now specifies that an offence must constitute "carelessness, negligence or a breach of duty of care or security".

The change followed some controversial teacher prosecutions. In 1995, six pupils and a supervisor drowned on a school trip, for which a teacher and head were given suspended jail sentences but later discharged.

Three years later, a headteacher was convicted after a coach crash that killed three pupils and the driver, even though she was not even on the trip.

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