A Parent V A Primary School (Represented by Mr Peter O'Leary BL instructed by Cusack Mc Tiernan Solicitors)
Equal Status Act, 2000 - Marital Status Ground Section 3 (2) (b) - Establishment of a Prima Facie case - Rules applying to school - Expulsion from school
Delegation under the Equal Status Act, 2000
The complainant referred a complaint of discrimination on the Marital Status ground to the Director of Equality Investigations. In accordance with her powers under Section 75 of the Employment Equality Act,1998 the Director has delegated the investigation, hearing and decision in this case and the exercise of other relevant functions of the Director under part III of the Equal Status Act, 2000 to me Mary O'Callaghan an Equality Officer. The hearing of the complaint was held on Tuesday 28th October 2003.
This dispute concerns a complaint made by a parent that she was discriminated against by her daughter's primary school on 5th December 2001 when she was asked to remove her daughter from the school. The complainant's daughter had been a pupil at the school for the previous five years and was nine years old at the time of the incident. The complainant alleges that the only reason for the actions of the school was the fact that she had just been divorced.
The respondent primary school maintains that a number of episodes involving the complainant and her daughter in the period leading up to the incident on the 5th December 2001 were the cause of their actions on that date. These incidents were in conflict with the school rules which had been notified to the complainant at the time of her daughter's enrolment in the school. The parent's marital status was irrelevant to their decision to expel the complainant's daughter.
Evidence was provided at the hearing by the complainant and her mother; the respondent school headmistress and another teacher at the school and two parents of children attending the school.
2. Summary of the Complainant's Case
The complainant alleges that following an incident when she notified the school that she had excused her daughter from participating in a homework assignment, relations between herself and the school principal deteriorated. This was approximately 3 weeks before the incident complained of herein. The deterioration at that time resulted in the principal teacher suggesting that the complainant should take her child out of the school but following some negotiation and an apology from the complainant over the homework incident the matter was left lie.
Some weeks later when the complainant arrived at the school with her daughter, on the 5th December 2001, they were intercepted by the principal teacher and another teacher. The principal took the complainant aside while the other teacher took the complainant's daughter inside the classroom area. The complainant said that the principal told her that things weren't working out and that her daughter would have to leave the school. At the request of the complainant the respondent (Principal Teacher) explained to the complainant's daughter that that this was not the little girls fault and that she was a beautiful little girl. The complainant said that the respondent told her daughter that it was her mother's fault and that she put everybody else before her daughter. It is alleged that the respondent indicated that she and the teachers at the school were not happy with the complainant's lifestyle.
The complainant stated that the only circumstance of note in her life at that time was her recent divorce from her daughter's father and she believed that it was solely because this change in her marital status that the respondent acted as she did. She maintains that any actions by her towards the school authorities have been misunderstood by the school. The complainant, therefore, alleges that she has been subjected to discrimination contrary to Section 3 (2) (b) of the Equal Status Act 2000.
3. Summary of the Respondent's Case
The respondent's presentation of the incident and the events leading up to it differs significantly from that of the complainant. The respondent denies that the complainant's marital status played any part in the removal of the complainant'sdaughter from the school. The respondent maintains that there was a build up of behaviours on the part of the complainant over a longer period of time than the three week period referred to by the complainant. These behaviours represented a breach of the school's stated policies. Included in these policies are statements that "The child and his/her parents must respect the teachers." and "The school management reserves the right to expel any child whose behaviour or whose parents' behaviour is not in keeping with the school's policies and ethos.")
The respondent said the complainant had over a period of time challenged School authority and made demands that the school thought were inappropriate to meet. Among such incidents was the complainant's persistence in accessing the school through a private entrance despite being asked to refrain from doing so by the school management. This, the respondents say, caused other parents to follow suit and caused difficulties for the school with residents in the area. Ultimately a decision was taken to close off the exit. The respondent said that the complainant, when asked to sign her daughter's homework book, would often delete the comments made by the teacher and substitute her own comments prior to returning the book to the school. On other occasions the respondent alleged the complainant became abusive when she didn't get her way. The respondent said that the complainant was forcing her daughter to compete with another pupil who was part of the "gifted children" programme at Dublin City University. The complainant's daughter is very talented at drama and the performing arts and the respondent said that the complainant felt that her daughter should have the leading part in every school performance while the school took the view that every child should have a chance. The respondent said that this behaviour on the part of the complainant started to manifest itself through her daughter who confronted teachers and challenged the grades she was being given. It was as a result of this that the school took the decision that it would be in the best interests of the school, its pupils and the complainant's daughter if the little girl was to leave the school.
The respondent said that that the complainant's marital status was not an issue with the school and that there were many parents with children at the school who were separated and divorced. Two of these parents provided evidence at the hearing. The respondent says it was the behaviour of the complainant that resulted in the incident complained of and that no comments were made about her lifestyle.
4. Conclusions of the Equality Officer
Firstly, I must consider whether the existence of a prima facie case has been established by the complainant. There are three key elements which need to be established to show that a prima facie case exists. These are:
(a) That the complainant is covered by the discriminatory ground (in this case Marital Status)
(b) That there is evidence of specific treatment of the complainant by the respondent
(c) That there is evidence that the treatment received by the complainant was less favourable than the treatment someone, not covered by that ground, would have received in similar circumstances.
If those elements are established, the burden of proof shifts, meaning that the difference in treatment is assumed to be discriminatory on the relevant ground. In such cases the claimant does not need to prove that there is a link between the difference and the membership of the ground, instead the respondent has to prove that there is not. If they succeed in establishing prima facie evidence, the burden of proof then shifts to the respondent to rebut the inference of discrimination. In this case the complainant has established that she has marital status in that she is divorced and therefore she satisfies criterion (a) above.
It is agreed by both parties that the complainant was taken aside by the respondent and spoken to on the day of the incident complained of and I am prepared accept that this satisfies the specific treatment element as outlined at (b) above. The third criterion which must be met is whether this treatment was less favourable than the treatment someone, not covered by that ground, would have received in similar circumstances.
There has been no evidence in this case that show that the actions of the respondent toward the complainant on the 5th December 2001 was less favourable treatment than that which would be applied to any parent with a different marital status in such circumstances.
This complaint appears to arise from a situation where a mother in attempting to achieve the highest ideals for her daughters education has come into conflict with the school's overarching and equally high ideals for the education of the entire student body. The unfortunate and deeply saddening outcome of this relationship is that a nine year old, bright and talented young girl has had to leave the school she attended for five years, prematurely.
The complainant has not succeeded, therefore, in satisfying the third criterion required to establish a prima facie case.
In reaching my decision in this case I took account of the following.
- The acceptance by the complainant that at no time was her marital status raised as an issue by the respondent.
- The undisputed evidence that the child's homework grades had been altered by her parent in a way that conflicted with the grades allocated by the school.
- The evidence of two of the parents at the school that despite the fact that they had been separated or divorced and were now in second relationships, the treatment of them or their children at the school did not change.
- The evidence that a number of the incidents cited by the respondent had occurred (although the reasons for these actions differed between the parties) I find that the complainant has not succeeded in establishing a prima facie case of discrimination. I find for the respondent in this case.
12 November 2003