How my abuse slur hell exposes holes in system

11th September 2009 at 01:00

Last September I learned that I had been accused of "feeling up" a 12-year-old boy in my care. The phone call from a detective constable came completely out of the blue three months after the allegation had been made. It took as long as that for them to contact me because the police are apparently inundated with such complaints - and it was out of the blue because the incident did not actually happen.

I am an experienced supply teacher and am used to being put in vulnerable situations with children. The school in question, however, is in what would be regarded as a nice village setting, a high school for Years 7 to 9.

Through a teaching agency, it was arranged that I would teach humanities three days a week until the end of term, which I was happy to do, as work can be scarce at the end of the school year. I found my lessons challenging, not least because I was put in an isolated mobile classroom with no quick access to support, and because I had no means of identifying those in my care.

Unsurprisingly, the students took advantage of this, making my job stressful, but not impossible, and the work set was largely completed.

In the course of a fortnight, I worked seven days without incident. Then, on a Monday in late June, I arrived at the school one morning to be told that I was no longer needed. They said they had received a complaint about "a comment I had made". Though shocked and upset at first, I quickly rationalised it as a hazard of being a vulnerable supply teacher.

The occasion was quickly forgotten and I moved on, successfully applying for a position as a cover supervisor at a local school. So, naturally, the phone call from the child-abuse division came as a total shock. The detective constable said she needed to interview me at a police station under caution about the complaint from three months earlier. She said she was not allowed to discuss the case on the telephone, and we eventually scheduled a meeting for three days later. I informed my new employers about the interview in case of possible repercussions.

I need hardly say how distressing those three days were. I wondered why the incident, presumably very serious, was not dealt with at the time or why I was still allowed to work with children. My friends urged me to think positively, but I am aware that, as an adult, I am automatically the criminal. It could have been a 14-year-old boy alleging without witnesses that I tried to have sex with him, for example.

I was completely devastated, and was overcome with tears even before the interview started. The detective constable told me the boy's name, and I reacted truthfully, which was to say that I could not even remember him. The job of a detective is to separate fact from fiction under questioning and I was therefore desperate to convince her of my innocence.

The crux of the allegation was that, on two or three separate occasion, and in full view of the rest of the class, I had apparently fingered the boy's back down his spine and stroked the length of his arm on to his wrist. He acknowledged that he had said nothing at the time, which in itself is remarkable. Another, less serious, allegation was the throwing of a pen and a book, an idea so preposterous that I did not even ask at what or at whom I was meant to have thrown them.

It seems that the boy took exception to the fact that I shouted at his peers, but not at him and, in fact, praised him where I may have been more abrupt with some of the others. In short, I behaved like all other teachers when confronted with a quiet child in a rowdy class. Incidentally, he acknowledged that I was a good teacher, a comment that finally brought a smile to my face.

Eventually, in early December, the detective constable rang to say that no further action would be taken, although the episode is included on my Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) form. The wording, in my opinion, is unfortunate, as it suggests that I may simply have got away with the inappropriate behaviour with a child in my care, and not that I have been falsely accused to a ridiculous extent.

My accuser was clearly confused and could not see that my behaviour was that of a professional simply trying to get through a difficult assignment. It almost beggars belief, even in our ligitious society, that this situation needed to go as far as it did, causing an innocent adult untold distress and eventual illness.

I am left with five unanswered questions. Why would I want to stroke the arm and back of a child in my care? Why would I do so in a packed classroom? Why would I think that I would get away with it? Why was I still able to work with children while this was being investigated? And why is this false allegation now with me, on my CRB, for the rest of my life?

Magazine, page 10-18

Judi Barber, Supply teacher in Leicester.

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