Unreliable witnesses

The crisis that engulfed the BBC last year over the allegations that a former leading politician was a pedophile only for it to emerge that he was the unfortunate object of mistaken identity reminds me of an incident at a school where I once worked. While it was not a case of mistaken identity, it was a case where the reliability of witnesses and victims was brought seriously in to doubt.

I was a deputy head teacher deputizing for a head who was away on leave. I was taking assembly when suddenly I was called out to deal with four girls who were in various states of distress sitting in the staff room. They had told a member of the support staff that a supply teacher currently working in the school had sexually assaulted them.

These were the days’ before the highly regulated safeguarding procedures that exist now, but it was obvious within minutes of listening to the girls that we had to contact both their parents and the police.

I was convinced that two of the girls were presenting very credible cases for the supply teacher to answer.

The account of two others raised some concerns for me even from the start. I soon began to have doubts about the integrity of their stories – there were inconsistencies, corrections and elaborations. There were some genuine tears and there were some near hysterical dramatic gestures. While we were waiting for parents and the police to arrive, I decided to spend some time speaking to the girls individually. My doubts became even more serious once they were separated from each other’s company.

I soon became convinced that two of the girls were simply making up their accounts. On gentle but simple questioning, theirs were inconsistent, contradictory and even sequentially impossible. In separate conversations, I gently offered them a way out, suggesting that there would be no shame or guilt if, on reflection, they realized they had been confused or that their recollections had some how played tricks on them.

All four stuck to the allegations.

I immediately suspended an extremely distressed supply teacher and sent him home with the advice to seek the support of his union and some professional legal help. Parents and police arrived, brief interviews followed and the children were allowed to go home early that day.

Before they went I saw parents individually. I put it to them all, gently and tactfully, without casting doubts their children’s stories, that the memory of some events may become confused the longer time went on. I asked them to ask their children that evening to re-count the events to their parents to see if some sequences and timescales could be clarified and reconciled.

The next day, the parents of the two girls whose stories I had had concerns about, came to me separately and asked for the allegations not to be taken any further, at least as far as their daughters were concerned. Their children had they said, “got totally confused about what had happened” and “got caught up in what had been said and done to the other girls” to the point where they now believed their children had neither been assaulted nor even in alone with the supply teacher. When I asked if they were sure about this, they were insistent. Highly embarrassed, but insistent.

To cut a long story short… the case ended-up in court on the basis of the more credible submissions of the other two girls. It soon collapsed however, after a further round of inconsistent and contradictory evidence by the girls under cross-examination. The supply teacher was acquitted.

I left the court with a very deep sense of unease at the whole episode.

On the one hand, I was convinced that there was a credible case for the supply teacher to answer. He had, as far as I was concerned, some very tough questions to answer about his alleged behavior. He managed to avoid all of this because of the legitimate but nevertheless quite ruthless professional tactics of his highly skilled barrister.

On the other hand, it had been clear that at least two of the girls were prepared to lie about their involvement in the alleged assaults and implicate the supply teacher in a crime that could have resulted in sending him to prison.

Now by and large, I loved my career in teaching. I still love the company of children. I’m endlessly delighted by their general sense of curiosity, fun and innocence. But every experienced teacher knows that there are some children, found in every school up and down the country and irrespective of gender, class or race, who are capable of standing in front of you, staring you directly in both eyes and telling you something which you know with 100% certainty to be a bare-faced lie.

Sometimes people are genuinely and innocently confused about facts and the sequence of events. Some people, due to their faulty emotional needs or a prurient desire to be part of dramatic action, are unreliable witnesses. Some, due to psychological states like psychopathy, can be liars.

It’s a sad fact, but it’s true. As teachers, our idealism about educating children and our determination to protect them from harm needs to be tempered by that uncomfortable fact.

Alan Newland worked as a teacher and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) is published in February 2014.

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