For 10 weeks humiliated 12-year-old schoolboy Luke Hanlon could not face his classmates after they branded him the “suspect thief” when money went missing from the staff room at St Joseph’s National School in Borris-in-Ossory, County Laois, in April 2018.
His headmaster asked four senior classes to mark on a piece of paper who they thought the culprit was for having taken significant amounts of money missing from purses belonging to two teachers.
The children blamed Luke, now aged 14, of Slieve Bloom View, Borris In Ossory, Co Laois, so he walked out for good after having been taken from class and questioned about the alleged thefts. He missed 10 weeks of classes and the much-anticipated school graduation.
Judge Karen Fergus, at Tullamore Circuit Civil Court, described Luke’s treatment by the school’s headmaster and board of management as unbelievable and appalling when she ruled a €20,000 settlement from the board as reasonable compensation for their having damaged the boy’s character.
Barrister Eileen McAuley told the court that Luke’s mother Marie Hanlon and her son had been given a written apology by the school authorities only in May last in which they had expressed regret and acknowledged Luke as an honest young man of integrity.
The school apologised to Luke for any humiliation, distress or embarrassment it had caused to him by what had happened.
Ms McAuley, who appeared with Sandra Hartford of Barry Fitzgerald Solicitors for Luke and his mother, stated in her legal opinion read by the judge that Luke was wrongly accused by the school principal and vice-principal of two thefts of money from members of staff.
She said the school principal had gone into Luke’s class on April 13, 2018, and asked the children if any of them had been involved in the theft or if they knew who had been involved.
“He asked all of the pupils in the joint fifth and sixth class to write down on a piece of paper the name of the person they believed stole the money,” Ms McAuley told the court.
“He made the same request of the joint third and fourth class. Luke’s name and that of another pupil were marked on the pieces of paper.”
Ms McAuley said Luke had been called into the principal’s office where he had been spoken to by the principal and vice-principal and asked had he stolen the money, which he denied.
He was later questioned again by the principal alone and his mother had been asked to attend the school immediately.
“His mother was there within 10 minutes and established from the principal that there was no evidence whatsoever that (her son) had taken the money,” Counsel said.
“She questioned the manner in which the principal had handled the matter, particularly his classmates being asked to identify the person they believed was the culprit on a piece of papder without being required to have any basis for their belief.”
It was Ms McAuley’s opinion he had been identified as the culprit, singled out and treated as though he were guilty without any evidence against him.
Luke’s mother, in an affidavit, said he felt so humiliated by the episode that he could not return to his classes and stayed away for 10 weeks. He was now doing well at secondary school.
The school, in a defence, admitted Luke was one of two children identified by a number of other children as possibly being responsible for the thefts but denied the other pupils had been made aware that he was being singled out and accused of theft.
Approving the settlement offer, Judge Fergus confirmed she had read the papers and counsel’s opinion and was “appalled” at the way Luke had been treated.
She said that while no money could change what Luke and his family had gone through the offer was a reasonable one. She thought the circumstances in which the principal had investigated the matter were unbelievable.