Guilty until proved innocent

9th January 1998 at 00:00
Last summer there were several instances of British women making false allegations of rape. One had a four-month prison sentence reduced to two weeks on appeal, another was fined Pounds 400.

To a mere man these sentences appear extremely lenient given that the defendants faced years in prison. Zero tolerance has zip to say about poor lambs who cry wolf. Police were recently called to a Glasgow primary school to investigate claims that a child had been assaulted by a teacher. Several months ago a secondary teacher in the city was charged with assault. The law will take its course and if the teachers are convicted it is likely that their careers will be prematurely ended.

But what if they are victims of malicious allegations? Will the full weight of the legal system come crashing down on the malevolent accusers? If anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, not likely. In the litigious times we live in, teachers and their professional associations should pick up the gauntlet and demand a legal remedy to false accusations. School managements could avoid the school's name being dragged through the courts by developing a formal procedure to investigating allegations. Given that livelihoods and reputations are on the line, a more professional approach is overdue.

Two years ago I was accused of assaulting a pupil. His father had phoned the headteacher with the accusation that I had "grabbed and shaken" his son the previous day to such a degree that the boy was frightened to return to school. I strenuously denied the allegation. The head and deputy head carried out an investigation. I was shocked with their finding. They had three witnesses who saw me do it. When I uttered a second denial (a cockerel was placed on standby should I deny it thrice) it was decided to re-evaluate the evidence.

That night I hardly slept. I couldn't believe that three pupils had conspired against me. I needn't have worried. The next day the head informed me of three developments.

First, there had never been three witnesses, only the accuser and his witness (I had given both boys a punishment exercise the previous day). The "third" witness had been the result of a mix-up between the head and deputy when taking oral evidence, for which I received no apology. Second, the accuser's "witness" had admitted fabricating his account and would be subject to a three-day exclusion. (Later the boy would apologise to me for the situation he helped create). Third, the parent of the accuser was no longer pursuing the case. He believed I had merely "pushed" his son and, being an assistant head in a city school, understood that these things happen. The head informed me that no action was to be taken against the boy as I could not prove I didn't touch him.

I sought legal advice and, using the head as a conduit, the parent was informed that if his son persisted in his false allegation I would sue him. I never heard from him again. There was fall-out. My relationship with the head was severely damaged. I initiated the grievance procedure regarding the way the investigation was handled, which led to full-time union officials (from the same union) hammering out a resolution acceptable to both sides.

What about the pupil? He has been in my class for the past two years and I believe we have a reasonable relationship despite never having received an apology for the distress he caused. The tragedy is that the same situation could occur again. Most schools don't have a clear strategy of dealing with malicious allegations. A start would be to only accept detailed written statements from the accuser and potential witnesses. All involved should be made aware of the penalties for presenting falsehoods. If a series of incidents happen where the only witnesses are the teacher and the "victim", then the Moorov Doctrine could be applied - a pattern of behaviour points to guilt.

Kids who are in trouble tend to dig deeper to get out. When the dirt is being dished the threat of legal action may be the classroom teacher's ace in the hole.

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