Teacher receives six-figure payout for being bullied at school

It’s not only students in the school yard being caught bullying at school. Bullying also affects school staff.  In recent news, a NSW primary school teacher has received a six-figure settlement after claiming she attempted suicide as a result of being bullied by her principal and isolated by her colleagues for more than a year.  Although the facts of the case are not publicly available, the details reported by the media serve as an important reminder for schools to have clearly documented bullying policies.

Facts of the Case

Ms F (whose real name and school details have been withheld for legal reasons) was a full-time teacher at a NSW school for nearly seven years.  Ms F said that the school had a “wonderful environment and a good, collaborative staff culture” – before the arrival of a new principal. As soon as the principal commenced in 2011, the school’s culture started to “become toxic.”

Ms F decided to talk with the new principal (once informally, then another time in the form of a letter) to discuss the change in culture at the school.  However, at the time and without realising, Ms F set herself up as a target. Ms F started hearing negative comments about herself being circulated among staff at the school and other teachers soon began ignoring her in the staff room.  Ms F said, “It’s a very sinister form of bullying where you start to isolate the person.  I’d go to the staff room and sit next to someone just to say ‘hi’, and if the principal came in they would get up and move.”

At times, the principal would humiliate her in front of other teachers and students, and the principal once suggested Ms F should be made redundant in front of all staff members.  When Ms F was alone with the principal, she would feel scared and start physically shaking.  Ms F eventually tried to commit suicide as she felt she had no other option, like she was a burden at the school and “not any use to anybody.”

Ms F said that she has never been able to get over the ordeal and will never be able to go back to teaching, which was not just a job to her but something she really loved.

In 2014, the NSW Workers Compensation Commission (the Commission) heard the matter.  The Commission’s role is to resolve workers compensation disputes between injured workers and employers. The Commission “encourages parties (workers, employers and insurers) to discuss ways of resolving the dispute at all stages of the process.”  The Commission found in favour of Ms F and determined that her school authority pay her weekly benefits and cover medical costs. In 2015, Ms F decided to explore a work injury damages claim as well as a claim of negligence against the school. Last week, the parties reached a six-figure settlement during a compulsory mediation before the matter went to the NSW District Court.  The exact settlement amount has not been disclosed.

Workplace bullying

Sadly, this incident of a leader of the school – the principal – bullying a staff member, is not unique.  We have previously reported on a similar case Principal’s bullying of teacher a ‘sad indictment’ resulting in Fair Work Commission action.  In that case, legal action was taken by the Victorian teacher under Federal anti-bullying legislation – the Fair Work Act 2009. In Ms F’s case, her status as an employee of the NSW government, not a private organisation, meant that she did not have the ability to access the remedies under the Federal legislation.

Despite the different jurisdictions and applicable law, similar concepts apply and also, similar lessons to be learnt from the case.  For example, the failure of the parties to resolve the dispute internally may suggested that the school did not have appropriate complaints and dispute resolution practices and procedures which may have prevented the cultural situation escalating to a point where Ms F suffered such personal harm.

In the Victorian teacher’s case, the matter was held by Deputy President Gostenick, who emphasised that it was a “sad indictment” on the capacity of two educated professionals and the College that third party resolution was required.”

Could things have been done differently?

Based on the facts reported by the media, the question arises: what could the school have done differently?

First, the comments made by Ms F about workplace culture and the behaviour of a key school leader provide an important reminder that anti-bullying and harrassment policies and procedures should be clear, easily accessed and followed. All staff should be trained on WHS/OHS/OSH policies and procedures. In particular, what conduct is considered ”reasonable management action” which does not constitute bullying and action which is ”unreasonable”.

And given that October is Safe Work Month nationally, now is a great opportunity for all schools to review their policies and procedures, and remind staff of what types of conduct amount to bullying conduct.  The serious statistics on the Safe Work Australia Website are also sober reminders of how prevalent, and serious, workplace bullying can be:

  • 9.4% of Australian workers indicated that they had experienced workplace bullying in the previous 6 months (2014–15)
  • 37% of Australian workers reported being sworn or yelled at in their workplace
  • $22,600 median cost for accepted bullying and/or harassment claims in 2013-14 – Psychosocial health and safety and bullying report

About the Author

William Kelly is a School Governance reporter. He can be contacted here.

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