A child in my class has wrongly alleged that I hit her

10th September 2004 at 01:00
I'm an experienced primary teacher. A child in my class has wrongly alleged that I hit her. I live locally and her family is spreading rumours about me. What can I do?

Ted Wragg, emeritus professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own

Ted says

Wrongful allegation is one of the most harmful things that can happen to a teacher. There is sometimes a huge fuss about the initial accusation but less publicity when the teacher is cleared.

If you belong to a union, you should call on its help immediately as you will be advised by someone with much greater experience in this sort of matter than yourself. Acting alone can easily land you in trouble if you take a wrong step - for example, if you are accused of badgering other children to corroborate your account. If you are not a member of a union, then you are in the hands of the head, or a solicitor, or both.

Skilful intervention by a senior person, such as the head or deputy, can often nip trouble in the bud, especially when there is mere gossip rather than a formal complaint. Normally, the school would have to investigate fairly and thoroughly, bearing in mind both the child's and the teacher's rights to a fair hearing and justice.

If there were witnesses, other children may confirm your version of events.

Should there be no witnesses, it will depend partly on whether the child is a known fantasist and how consistent the story is. According to natural justice, the onus is on the accuser to prove the case and you must be presumed innocent, though insensitive press coverage, if it gets that far, can often violate this right. In any case, you are entitled to take legal steps to stop the family spreading rumours, as this amounts to defamation.

Wherever possible, to minimise risk of false accusation teachers should ensure that altercations with children never take place in private, away from witnesses. And belonging to a union is a wise move.

You say

Confide in your headteacher

In these days of instant litigation, the possibility of a wrongful accusation is the most worrying thing for a teacher. Fortunately, newcomers to the profession seem to be well briefed in the dangers of, for example, listening to a child read without others present.

You don't state the circumstances of the allegation, but I imagine it may have been something simple such as placing a hand on the child to calm her down, an everyday occurrence which has been misrepresented to the parentsI and these days, unfortunately, a lot of parents are only too willing to believe the child, often because they can't control him or her themselves.

Contacting your union is essential, but in my experience union representatives are often slow to get their act together and give the necessary help. More important will be your dealings with the headteacher and, provided you are absolutely honest with him or her about the incident, you are fully entitled to their full support. You should certainly put in writing, and in some detail, exactly what happened during the incident, and the headteacher should have a meeting with the parents (without you, if you prefer) and make the truth of the matter absolutely clear.

They will undoubtedly accuse the head of siding with his staff, but usually these matters dissipate quickly. Don't expect an apology from the parents, though.

Anonymous, south London

Contact your union

Seek legal advice through your union and follow it to the letter. Refuse to discuss the matter with anyone else - don't be drawn into gossip. And, last but not least, difficult as it must be, try not to worry.

Angela Pollard, Rugby

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