Teachers dismissed over online slurs begin tribunal challenge

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Two teachers sacked from a special needs school for saying on Facebook that a pupil looked like Peter Pan – before joking about taking him to the top of the town hall to see if he could fly – have begun a claim for unfair dismissal.

Teacher Sandra Barnes and teaching assistant Sarah Carter were among four people sacked from Greenacre School in South Yorkshire in 2010 after comments on the popular social networking site came to the attention of headteacher Susan Hayter.

Mrs Barnes and Ms Carter believe they were unfairly dismissed from their positions at the school in Barnsley, which provides for as many as 170 pupils with special educational needs, and have taken their case to an employment tribunal.

The tribunal in Sheffield heard that Ms Hayter was alerted to certain comments on the site in May 2010 and said she was “horrified” after finding feeds in which members of staff were discussing aspects of their work which she found to be unprofessional and inappropriate.

Her main cause for concern was a comment feed that began “ouch my ears hurt” and appeared to involve at least four members of staff – Mrs Barnes, Ms Carter, Rachel Mayes and Jo Carr – discussing a hard day at work at which there had been a noisy pupil.

One comment said “You know how he looks like Peter Pan, shall we take him to the top of the town hall and see if he can fly”, and following comments in the thread included “we may have to do a risk assessment” and “it would be a right laugh”.

There were also comments saying “bless him, bless him. I could kill him” and one attributed to Mrs Barnes that said “we can sell tickets, a brill drama”.

The tribunal heard that some parents were distressed, believing the comment referred to their son.

“One set of parents came to me extremely distressed because they thought the article referred to their son who had been taught by Mrs Barnes,” Ms Hayter told the hearing.

She added that another pupil who had been taught by Mrs Barnes and Ms Carter became “extremely distraught” and because “her ears stuck out” she thought they were talking about her.

Ms Hayter thought it was inappropriate that in their profiles both Ms Carter and Mrs Barnes had listed where they worked, making it easier for people following the comments to know what they were about.

The tribunal also heard that Ms Carter was friends on Facebook with one pupil at the school but it is not thought she viewed any of the comments.

Ian Groom, representing Mrs Barnes, asked the headteacher whether she thought the comments, while in bad taste, may have been friendly chat between colleagues who were “letting off steam” after a hard day.

Ms Hayter said: “It was wholly inappropriate, it shows lack of respect, it was unprofessional.”

She added: “Greenacre is a special school and we have to work on a high level of trust.”

Other members of staff were found commenting on the site but only four were dismissed for their involvement in the “ouch my ears hurt” stream of comments.

Others were spoken to or had a letters sent to them.

Both Mrs Barnes and Ms Carter maintain that the comments were taken out of context and were not meant to be taken seriously.

They also believed what was said on Facebook could only be viewed by “friends and friends of friends”, and that they think their dismissal was too harsh a punishment, the tribunal heard.

Speaking on Thursday, David Carter, representing his daughter, asked William Denton – the chairman of the governing body at Greenacre School – if he thought either Ms Carter or Mrs Barnes actually intended to bring a child to the top of the town hall and see if he could fly. He replied ‘no’.

Greenacre’s governor Michael Coy said: “I was initially quite shocked by the content.

“Certain aspects of the conversation were disrespectful, (they) demonstrated a lack of care for the people they were referring to.”

The claimants will give their evidence when the tribunal hearing reconvenes in Sheffield at a later date.

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