Friday, March 06, 2015

Vengeful pupil's abuse lies destroyed this devoted teacher's life, leaving him clinically depressed and his reputation shattered

The allegations were as vindictive and damaging as they were utterly false. Yet they all but destroyed primary school teacher Brendan O’Brien. Brendan, 45, had for 16 years been an exemplary teacher: popular with pupils and respected by colleagues.

Yet in just a year his reputation was shattered, he lost his job and became clinically depressed, prey to anxiety and panic.

A £25,000 legal bill exhausted his entire savings and ate into those of his parents. His reputation unjustly besmirched, he and his wife Jane — who has two grown-up daughters by a previous relationship — had to give up their dream of adopting a child.

And this awful ordeal was caused by five boy pupils from his West Yorkshire primary school who accused him of sexual abuse.

It’s the worst accusation that could be levied against a teacher. And in today’s climate, where historic cases of the abuse of children are as prolific as they are disturbing, the police, quite rightly, had to act.

Yet the most cursory of checks would have revealed that his accusers were troublemakers: disruptive, aggressive, defiant and precociously sexualised.

But once the boys — present and past pupils aged ten to 12 — had made the allegations that their teacher had inappropriately touched them and instigated sexual activity, the machinery of the law was set in motion. And despite the complete absence of evidence, it would destroy the name of a good man in the process.

In January, a year after Brendan was first arrested, a jury at Leeds Crown Court acquitted him, swiftly and unanimously, on all charges. He had pleaded not guilty to 17 counts of sexual assault on a male child under the age of 13 and one count of causing or inciting a male child under 13 to engage in sexual activity.

So how could Brendan be left with a life in tatters while five malicious trouble-makers are carrying on with their lives, without so much as a telling off?

These are questions Brendan and Jane, 43, a reflexologist and sales assistant, are asking themselves.

Brendan says: ‘When I was charged, I was no longer Mr O’Brien, a respected village primary school teacher. Instead, I was a pariah. I was too scared to leave the house. I became introverted, and I lost 2 st. Yet the boys who accused me have been able to hide behind a curtain of anonymity while my name was publicised.

‘My accusers should be punished for making false and damaging claims against me. But they are all carrying on as though nothing has happened while I have to piece together my shattered life.’

Shattered is the correct word: Brendan’s teaching contract was terminated in July, and he is unemployed and taking his former employers to an industrial tribunal. But even if he wins, he doubts he will ever teach again.

Brendan’s nightmare began in January last year. He had driven to school and by 6.45am was sitting at his desk, planning his lessons. One matter was preying on his mind: how to deal with a particularly disruptive pupil. Brendan had already spoken about him to the school’s headteacher.

The day before, he had called the ten-year-old’s mother, inviting her to school to discuss her son’s behaviour. It was getting virtually impossible to teach with him interrupting, shouting wisecracks and refusing to do any work.

Then an hour later, he was summoned to his head’s office. Facing him were two police officers.

‘I was told I was being arrested on suspicion of sexual assault on a minor,’ he recalls. ‘And the child making the accusations was the same pupil causing problems.

‘I was completely, utterly dumbfounded. But my first thought was: “This will all be dismissed when the police investigate it and realise there is absolutely no foundation in it at all.” ’

But in the space of 12 months his life would be thrown into tumult as 18 charges were made against him concerning the children, the first boy and four others the ten-year-old knew.

On that January day, Brendan spent nine hours in police custody where every aspect of his teaching style was scrutinised.

Jane, his wife of ten years, was by now dealing with her own shock. Two-and-a-half hours after her husband was arrested, two officers arrived at their four-bedroom terrace house in Barnsley.

Jane recalls: ‘My initial thought was that Brendan had been in an accident. I asked if he was dead.  ‘But when they said he had been arrested for sexual assault, I was floored. The officers had come to search our home for possible evidence and to seize electronic equipment.

‘My legs would hardly hold me up as the police rooted through our bedroom. It was horribly intrusive. Although I knew Brendan had done nothing wrong, I felt as though we were criminals.

‘They looked through my work files and took away our iPad, mobiles, a Kindle and memory sticks. They spent months examining them, but didn’t find a single suspicious thing.’

When Brendan arrived home at 6.30pm, he was exhausted and bewildered. Jane says: ‘He could barely speak. But I never once doubted his innocence. The claim was ludicrous.’

Brendan was suspended on full pay. Both he and Jane were confident a short investigation would swiftly exonerate him. They told only close friends and family of the accusations.

But the nightmare escalated. Last March, Brendan was arrested again. A further four ex-pupils who knew one another in some way claimed he had inappropriately touched them and instigated sexual activity.

‘I had no idea why they would make up such malicious and despicable lies,’ he recalls. In April, he was formally charged with the sexual assaults against five boys: a ten-year-old current pupil; three 11-year-olds and a 12-year-old.

But their stories were inconsistent. Some attested the assaults took place while he was teaching, others said it was while he was alone in his classroom talking one-to-one with them.

And evidence read out in court supported the fact that each of the accusers was a known troublemaker. The youngest had boasted he would ‘get Mr O’Brien fired’.

Jane recalls the fallout of the allegations. ‘Brendan had always been so full of life and very jovial, but overnight his character changed.’

Her husband — a caring step-father to her two daughters — barely spoke and became consumed by fear. He suffered from anxiety and tremors, and his GP prescribed antidepressants.

The legal proceedings consumed their savings, and Brendan’s parents — in no doubt of their son’s innocence — chipped in.

As the case approached, a swell of support buoyed them up. Brendan recalls: ‘Parents of ex-pupils would stop me in the street and give me a hug, all of them telling me they didn’t believe a word of the claims.

‘But I still felt terrified. My solicitor had warned me if I was found guilty I faced up to seven years in prison and my name would be tarnished for ever.

Mercifully, the jury took just an hour to dismiss each of the charges against Brendan. Jane was with her daughters in court and when the verdict came, she was euphoric. ‘I squeezed my daughters’ hands,’ she recalls. ‘I just wanted to run to Brendan and hug him.’

Jane adds: ‘I can never forgive Brendan’s accusers. I truly believe the youngest of them was acting in revenge, and then the other boys joined a nasty, ill-conceived vendetta to try to destroy him.

‘And if this is what teachers face — and we are told that false sexual accusations against them are not uncommon — the whole profession must feel under threat.


New York City schools to close for Muslim holidays

Allahu Akbar. New York's Mayor Bill DeBlasio tweeted today that schools in his city will close for Eid al-Adha and al-Fitr "a change that respects the diversity of our city."

Yes, diversity if you're counting about two percent of the population, because currently that's what the Muslim population of New York City represents.

Some will say it's only fair that schools close for Muslim holidays because they're already closing for the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Except they're leaving out the fact that Jews represent 22 percent of the population of New York City as a whole and nearly 30 percent in the borough of Manhattan.

The New York Times says a 2008 study from Columbia University says about 10 percent of schoolchildren are Muslim, but still...

"Eid al-Adha, also known as the Festival of Sacrifice, commemorates a pivotal event shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam: the willingness of Ibrahim, or Abraham, to sacrifice his son to God."

Of course the mayor's move is really part of a larger effort of inclusiveness. In fact last month, he pressured the NYPD to remove this report from its website entitled "Radicalization in the West: the Homegrown Threat" - even after two policemen were hacked up by a jihadist - because it promotes discrimination against Muslims. So far the report is still available.

Rest assured however, this won't be the last move by de Blasio.


Australia: Stay out of my child's lunch box

As a brand new school mum, I've recently discovered that schools have assumed the role of the Lunch Box Police. Every morning tea and lunch is a test to see if kids and their parents have faithfully followed the laws of healthy eating.

It's a nice idea, but it's questionable whether this has anything to do with health. In fact, in the quest to promote nutrition, schools may unintentionally be damaging kids' relationship with food.

One school in Brisbane is so strict that the children have to show their lunch boxes to the class each morning. I know of one child who is so anxious about having 'bad' food in his lunchbox that he doesn't want to go to school.

Another school in Melbourne's eastern suburbs was conducting food inspections at the school gate, prohibiting 'junk food' from entering the school grounds. Some enterprising pre-teens had an early lesson in supply and demand and realised that prohibition is a golden marketing opportunity. They started a black market trafficking doughnuts behind the school shed.

"What more evidence to do you need that food policing by schools is dangerous?" asks Clinical Psychologist Louise Adams. "It's teaching kids to hide their eating and to binge eat."

Adams who runs Treat Yourself Well Sydney, a healthy weight management clinic, says that the risks of schools having food policies far outweigh the benefits.

"From the US research, we can see that this sort of food policing has not resulted in a reduction of body weight in children," she says.

"As a psychologist specialising in this area, all I can see happening is that children are developing a fear of food. Fear is not going to make children healthy; it's just going to make their relationship with food disturbed."

The food rules of most schools appear to be less extreme than the examples above, but they are still inappropriate, if not damaging.

At two of the primary schools in my inner-Melbourne suburb, children are only allowed to eat fruit, vegetables and yoghurt for morning tea. This means that by lunchtime the kids are often starving. This is hardly conducive to learning.

But even worse, it's teaching children not to trust their bodies, and to develop an almost hysterical fear of certain foods.

One friend packed a biscuit made by grandma for her daughter's morning tea. Her daughter came home feeling embarrassed that she had 'bad' food in her lunch box.

"I put one biscuit in, not six," says my friend. "What's missing from this situation is the love and care that grandma put into making special biscuits for her granddaughter."

I've put a lot of effort into teaching my daughter to listen to her body and to decide when she is hungry and when she is full. If she's hungry and wants to eat two sandwiches for morning tea, then I encourage it. I don't tell her that she should ignore her appetite and only eat carrot sticks.

And we never discuss food in moral terms. There's no 'good' or 'bad' or 'healthy' or 'unhealthy' food in our house. Consequently, there's no shame or guilt.

But the food policies of these schools undermine our efforts as parents to help our kids develop healthy relationships with food.

It's also a stretch well beyond the school's realm of authority. As a parent, what goes into my child's lunch box should be my decision. It's based on our family values, my intimate knowledge of my child's current appetite, preferences, and wellbeing, our family budget, and what's in the cupboard.

So long as it doesn't threaten the wellbeing and health of other children — as, say, peanuts and nuts do — then it shouldn't be the concern of the school.

Coincidently, Adams' daughter came home from her school on Sydney's northern beaches just last week, distressed because she had a muffin for lunch and she was told that it was unhealthy.

"My daughter was told that she should only eat fruit and vegetables and there was such shame on her face, like she'd really done something terrible," Adams says.

"Kids go from just eating food and being in tune with their bodies, to being scared and feeling worried that they are doing something wrong. This is the breeding ground for an eating disorder."

Adams says that schools should not be delivering any health messages about food to children. 

"Kids are very black and white. Their capacity for nuance is not developed. If we tell them that something is good and something is bad, they believe that absolutely. Then they relate it to themselves, that they are then a good or bad person.'

"Maybe we as parents need some support and help with how to provide a variety of foods to our kids, but it's psychologically damaging and unnecessary to discuss it with children."

There is no doubt that the schools mean well and they are implementing their food policies with the best of intentions. But given that school food policies have not resulted in a reduction of childhood obesity and that eating disorders are skyrocketing, it's time for schools to examine if they are actually contributing to the problems they are trying to solve.


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