On hearing their daughter could be seen undressed in the background of a dance video innocently filmed after a PE class and which was uploaded onto social media, a set of parents sought to rectify the matter. Two years later the problem resurfaced, writes Michael Clifford.
The dancer and her friend shot their video in the school changing room after PE.
This occurred in September 2016 in a mixed school in Leinster. There were up to 30 girls, aged 14, in the large changing area at the time.
The dancer is a talented performer. She did her thing in front of the camera. It is against the rules to record anything in a school changing room for obvious reasons, but she and her friend meant no harm. They were just putting on a performance.
The problem was that another girl was caught on the film in a state of undress. This girl, we will call her Mary, but that’s not her name, was wearing nothing from the waist down. She was in the background, just getting changed, unaware that she had been filmed during the performance.
The dancer was filmed using an iPad. All the students in the school had iPads which were managed by a company on behalf of the school.
The film quickly began circulating in the school. As is the way with these things it migrated from the iPads onto the social media site Snapchat.
Mary became aware of the film, what was on it, and that it was circulating.
“She saw it on another girl’s phone,” her mother says. “She knew she wasn’t dressed on it and she said she felt like she was seeing it as if it was underwater or something.
“That night she was hysterical, notably withdrawn. With a 14-year-old her primary fear is that the phone will be taken off them, so we were struggling to get the information at first.”
In the end, Mary told her parents what had occurred. Her mother rang her own sister, who was a teacher in the school. Mary’s aunt immediately emailed the school’s principal even though it was after 11pm.
She received a response very quickly despite the late hour. “This is extremely serious,” the principal wrote. “And we will deal with it in the morning.”
As far as Mary’s parents were concerned the primary focus had to be to stop the dissemination of material that was highly damaging to her daughter.
“A company was managing the iPads,” her mother says. “They should have been able to stop it.”
Mary’s mother conveyed this to Mary’s year head teacher.
“There were a number of calls back and forth because he couldn’t locate the video. I told him that it was circulating on Snapchat and on Snapsave (An app that saves images and film). I told him if he can’t locate it I’ll ring the guards and they will locate it. He said give me a couple of hours and I’ll find it.”
Mary’s mother says that a couple of hours later the teacher came back and said the video had been located. This was a huge relief.
The dancer and the girl who had taken the video were suspended for a day for video recording in a changing room. Mary’s family has no issue with the girls. They broke the rules but they did not intend to catch Mary on the video in a state of undress. That aspect was purely accidental.
Following the assurances from the school, Mary’s family assumed that was the end of the matter and their daughter could get on with her life after a traumatic incident.
“We were assured they were going to take the next steps and follow procedure and best practice,” Mary’s mother says.
The family presumed that the school would undertake its statutory role in informing Tusla of a child protection incident.
Then, over two years later, the video came to Mary’s attention again through social media in the school. It is unclear to what extent it may have circulated in the interim.
“She started suffering panic attacks,” Mary’s mother says. “ I thought it was unlikely that it could have resurfaced. When I had been told that everything would be done to get rid of it I believed them.
“At 16, teens are far more aware of terms like revenge porn and that kind of stuff that they don’t know at 14. So we had a new issue. Our priority was to get her to the end of the school year and try to deal with it then.”
That they did. In June 2019, Mary’s parents contacted the school to find out how this could have come back to haunt their daughter. They began to meet brick walls.
Through the summer of 2019, Mary’s parents repeatedly attempted to get information about the original investigation in 2016 and find out how this video could still be in circulation.
In particular, they wanted to know what steps had been taken to remove it from Snapchat? What report had been produced and had Tusla, the child and family agency, been informed of the original incident?
Eventually, they received a statement from the principal. “Our records of the incident indicate that following on from our investigations and in consultation with the parents of the other two students the school is satisfied there were no child protection issues around the incident and so no report was made to Tusla or the gardaí.”
The family contacted the Education and Training Board (ETB) for the area, as the board is a co-patron of the school. There has been no response of any substance from the ETB.
They decided to engage with the school’s board of management. To that end, they contacted a member of the board, a public representative.
In an email he told the family: “I’m gobsmacked by what has happened and you have every right to pursue it vigorously.”
The board replied two months later, saying “the incident was dealt with according to the code of conduct” and they were “satisfied that no child protection issues arose”.
The board also stated that the members had reviewed all information in relation to the incident.
The family was shocked. “My reaction to that was what steps were taken to limit the circulation,” Mary’s mother says.
The family made a personal data request, including for the minutes of board of management meetings from 2016 and the diaries of the school’s designated liaison person who would have been responsible for child protection issues.
Eventually, they were furnished with a forest of paper which was notable for what was absent. There was no mention of the case in the diaries of the designated liaison person in the school.
There was no mention of the case at the board of management meetings for the six months following the original incident. It was as if it had never happened at all.
It is unclear what “records”, as referenced in principal’s reply to the family, actually exist.
It is unclear what “information” the board reviewed. The only documentary record which the family is aware of is the email exchange between Mary’s aunt and the principal when the incident first arose.
Beyond that, there appears to be no contemporaneous documents about a serious child protection issue.
Further attempts to find out what had happened also run into a brick wall. All this time, the video clip, as far as Mary’s family are concerned, was still out there available for viewing.
“It definitely affected her in the latter half of transition year (Jan-June ’19),” her father, who teaches in another school, says.
“This year since she came back she has suffered panic attacks but not as bad. Strangely enough the lockdown has helped her.”
There was one more twist, a crucial one. A few months ago, Mary was being considered for a coveted role in her class but she wrote to her year head to say she wanted to withdraw from consideration.
She wrote that she didn’t feel confident or trust some of the school management on the basis of how the issue with the video had been dealt with in 2016.
This teacher, who had been unaware of the earlier incident, phoned Mary’s parents. They told him the history. Following that the teacher referred the matter to the principal, who was new to that role, and who then made a referral to Tusla.
Some weeks later, Mary’s parents received a letter from Tusla stating that after consideration the agency did not feel that a child protection issue arose.
“We phoned the social worker to see how they could have come to that conclusion,” Mary’s mother says.
That conversation revealed that the referral to Tusla from the school had stated that in the film Mary was not wearing a jumper but was otherwise clothed.
This is completely at variance with the video as the family know it. If the teenager wasn’t in a state of undress why were there no records of such a harmless incident?
Why an apparent reluctance to assist a family obviously in distress? If the whole thing was a ball of smoke, why wasn’t that stated in 2016 when it arose?
The social worker said she would bring the matter back to the team that made decisions on the matter.
A week later, the family was told by Tusla that the outcome of that consultation is that the matter has now been referred to the gardaí.
The primary motivation in doing this, the family were told, was that the gardaí would have the wherewithal to have the video taken out of circulation.
It is unclear as of yet whether the garda involvement will extend to investigating the school’s role in this incident.
The Irish Examiner contacted the principal of the school who referred queries to the ETB.
For Mary’s family, the main focus is that the video clip is removed.
“Beyond that there is a child protection issue that was not in any way properly addressed,” Mary’s mother says.
“There were up to 30 girls in that room. Have all their parents been informed? Was there any risk assessment done once this thing was uploaded and discovered? We were left completely in the dark. The process just was not followed and that is worrying.”
Under the Children First child protection guidelines, every school must have a designated liaison person.
This person, usually a teacher, often the vice principal, is nominated by the school’s board of management.
He or she is responsible for dealing with Tusla, An Garda Síochána, or “other parties connected with allegations of and/or concerns about child abuse.”
The most recent set of guidelines in this area fomulated by the Department of Education date from 2017. The document, entitled Child Protection Procedures for Primary and Post Primary Schools, sets out everything that should be done once any incident of child protection arises. This includes suspicions of incidents that may have occurred in a child’s home.
“These guidelines went further than others before it by placing greater emphasis on the role of individual teachers. In any situation where a member of school personnel (including a registered teacher), receives an allegation or has a suspicion that a child may have been abused or neglected, is being abused or neglected, or is at risk of abuse or neglect, he or she shall, without delay, report the matter to the designated liaison person.”
The guidelines go further than previous versions in placing greater emphasis on the role of individual teachers. Previously, if a teacher had reason to suspect any form of abuse, they were only obliged to inform the Designated Liaison Person who was charged with carrying the process forward.
Now, the new guidelines point out, “where a registered teacher has any such concern, in addition to reporting it to the DLP, he or she must also consider whether the concern is at or above the threshold at which the teacher must make a mandated report to Tusla.”