A school principal reportedly told one of his staff who had recently miscarried that it was ‘probably for the best’ as the woman already had adult children, the Relations Commission heard at the scene. of work.
It was among several incidents that were allegedly part of the ‘bullying and harassment’ suffered by the Special Needs Assistant (SNA) at St Paul’s Community College in Waterford City.
The details were laid out at a WRC session where Andrea Comerford, who was an SNA in secondary school from 2005 to 2018, sued for constructive dismissal under Section 8 of the Unfair Dismissal Act against Waterford Wexford Education and Training Board (WWETB).
She alleged that she was treated unfairly by manager Noreen Reilly in a “toxic work environment” from September 2013 until she submitted her resignation notice in the summer of 2018.
Prior to her miscarriage, in December 2017, she told the hearing that she suffered a “head injury” from an accident in the school hallway when she “entered a pillar”.
Ms Comerford, of Kilbarrymeaden, Kill, Co Waterford, suffered a broken nose and two black eyes and lay unconscious in the hallway.
After going to the hospital later that day, she alleged the hospital asked “why weren’t you brought in an ambulance” from school.
Asked by her representative Tom Creedon if an accident report had been drawn up, Ms Comerford alleged it only happened “several months later”.
She told referee Gaye Cunningham that she met Ms Reilly when she returned to work after her miscarriage, while still exhibiting two black eyes.
“She [Ms Reilly] offered to find me a place to work on the premises so I wouldn’t be out in public because obviously I probably would have been an oddity,” Ms Comerford said.
She alleged that the manager “told me it was probably for the best” that she had had a miscarriage.
“She then asked me, ‘Your daughters are tall, how old are they?’ At the time, I was probably in shock and upon reflection I realized how inappropriate it was.”
Ms Comerford told the WRC she had represented other SNAs and stood up for students with disabilities and felt “punished” for it.
She said she was ‘constantly asked what I was doing’ if seen in the hallway, ‘followed’ at other times in the school by Ms Reilly and ‘a few teachers’.
“I really felt like I was the problem,” she said.
She added: “It made me question myself…I saw a GP, I saw a psychiatrist, I went to various self-help groups. I went to cognitive therapy “behavioural. I joined the union. I really thought I was going crazy. I needed someone else to tell me, is that me?”
“As it happens in my therapies, it became very apparent that I was being bullied.”
WWETB lawyer Mary Paula Guinness said it was “completely denied” that some other staff were looking to leave St Paul’s at the same time as Ms Comerford and would dispute other claims made at the next sitting.
Ms Comerford’s representatives, trade unionists Tom Creedon and Una Dunphy, exposed the case, alleging that St Paul’s staff petitioned against Ms Reilly at WWETB when she was manager.
When the headmaster moved to another school – Waterford College of Further Education (WCFE) – Mr Creedon claimed many of the staff eventually signed a new petition to protest the management and that a WCFE staff member was present in court to testify about a “toxic work environment” in WCFE.
He added that WCFE students staged a strike and walkout over issues with management in 2020.
The hearing heard that SNAs cannot act as scribes or readers for students at exam time, as management reportedly said they “cannot be trusted” to help students properly.
ANS “took a huge problem” with this, Ms Comerford said, adding that best practice indicates that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) “work best with the people they have a relationship with” for them. exams.
Ms Comerford claimed threats to wages were ‘commonly said’ at ‘every staff meeting’ by Ms Reilly, while July’s 72-hour provision for summer work with children was ‘hanging’ over above staff and used as a “stick to beat them” with .
Ms Cunningham closed the session after the completion of Ms Comerford’s testimony and said she would resume in the coming weeks with her cross-examination.