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RE teacher vindicated

Woman attributes court victories over the GTC, a union, her school and colleagues to Martin Luther King

Joanne Sherry has had more than her fair share of legal disputes in the last five years.

As well as successfully suing the National Union of Teachers and facing the General Teaching Council, the former RE teacher took her ex-colleagues to court for failing to buy her a leaving present and began an employment tribunal case for unfair dismissal.

She reached an out-of-court settlement over the county court and tribunal cases against her school and colleagues and was cleared of all but one of the allegations levelled against her in the GTC hearing this month.

"I must be the first teacher to have taken on my union and the General Teaching Council in a year and won, " she said.

But 50-year-old Miss Sherry is not in a celebratory mood. It has been an ordeal that has seen her lose her career, shaken her confidence in former friends and face intense media scrutiny.

"I feel vindicated," she said. "But I am not the same person I was five years ago when I was vulnerable, naive and innocent. I think I have learned a lot."

The saga began on April 3 2001 when she was threatened by a pupil at Trinity school, Carlisle. A dispute with the secondary over the handling of the incident led to her suspension in December 2002 and her departure a year later.

Trinity was then headed by Mike Gibbons who went on to become head of the Department for Education and Skills' innovation unit.

Miss Sherry said she felt wronged because the school had not taken her safety concerns seriously. "Most people I know would give in because it is just overwhelming," she said.

"But I refused to. When you have taught about Martin Luther King for a long time you have to believe in justice."

In April 2003 she took the school governors to Carlisle county court for failing to return her personal belongings. She also sued her colleagues for not buying her a leaving present although she had contributed an annual pound;5 to a gift fund for 16 years.

"I was bitter," she admitted this week. "But they were wicked. They didn't give me a present because I wasn't at school."

The case caught the media imagination and Miss Sherry found herself under siege from national newspaper reporters.

There was more to come. Nearly two years later tabloids dubbed her the "Willy row miss" when she attended a GTC hearing accused by the school of telling pupils to draw pictures of circumcised male genitals, a charge she was cleared of this month.

Then the friend who had been representing her died. "After that I had to represent myself," said Miss Sherry. "Most teachers would have had their union but mine let me down."

She got her own back in February 2006 when the NUT had to pay her pound;3,800 after a judge ruled: "They washed their hands of her."

This month the GTC cleared her of leaving lessons unattended, sharing inappropriate information with a pupil, going off sick deliberately and refusing to co-operate with her departmental head.

Miss Sherry was reprimanded for making inappropriate allegations to the police about Mr Gibbons but is considering challenging this in the High Court. But even if she decides against it she will still be seeing plenty more of the legal system. Miss Sherry now works as a crown court usher.

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