Teacher sues employer after eight year old pulls her backwards

A Court has found that Education authorities failed to take steps to protect Staff and students at a western Sydney primary school from the violent, aggressive and anti-social behaviour of an eight-year-old Sudanese refugee who was in year 2,.  

Judge Levy awarded teacher Jeanette Sticker almost $700,000 in damages plus costs after she sued the NSW Department of Education and Communities for negligence following a serious back injury she incurred when attempting to discipline X in March 2009.  

The child, given the pseudonym “X”, clearly did not belong in a mainstream classroom and should have been removed from the Bert Oldfield Public School at Seven Hills when his misbehaviour, including hitting and kicking other children, escalated and worsened, District Court Judge Leonard Levy said.  

X had recently returned to school after four days’ suspension when he used a stick to hit other students in the playground. Ms Sticker, 55, took the weapon and led him by the hand to the principal’s office when he unexpectedly propped and braced himself in a doorway in the corridor with his free hand and his feet. He then violently pulled Ms Sticker backwards, causing her to land awkwardly on the floor.  

Ms Sticker, a mother of three, had been teaching for 30 years and was on the cusp of being appointed principal at another school but the injuries she suffered were so severe and long-lasting that she was forced to give her school teaching career away.  

But the principal, Elizabeth Gledhill, had been in the role for less than two months and the school records, which would have disclosed the increasing threat to the safety of staff and students posed by X since he started kindergarten, were in disarray.  

Furthermore teachers at the school had warned that X posed an “extreme danger in the classroom”, that other students were “very frightened of him” and they did not have the resources to deal with the behavioural problems thought to have stemmed from his time in a refugee camp. This is the key issue in the case because it establishes an actual knowledge on the part of the employer of the risks posed by the student. The employer then has a positive duty to take steps to reasonably prevent the risk from manifesting in an adverse outcome for their employees.  

As a result, the school “put the problem off” and sought extra support for X on top of the 10 hours a week he was already receiving rather than suspending him or taking steps to have him moved to a special school.  

Judge Levy dismissed the Department’s claim that Ms Sticker must take significant responsibility for her own injury because she took X’s hand when she should have avoided any physical contact with him as “hollow” and “lacking substance”.  

“Earlier steps should have been taken to remove X from the school and placed in a proper supportive environment, as he was source of danger to himself, other pupils and to teachers, as the events in question have aptly demonstrated,” Judge Levy said.  

“This deficiency arose because of systemic failings.”  

Ms Sticker was awarded $689,294 plus costs. The assessment of damages was significant because Ms Sticker was about to be appointed as a principal at another school carrying an increase in remuneration, and her future employment opportunities were completely removed as a consequence of the injury sustained.  

Article by Faran Gouldson – Director Gouldson Legal

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