A Blackpool teacher who was sacked after a child was locked in a ‘time out’ room today claimed school staff lived in fear of abuse from youngsters – and insisted she would act the same way again.
Julie Smith lost her job as the special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) at Revoe Primary School following an incident where a boy was left in a locked ‘time-out’ area after staff were allegedly threatened.
Mrs Smith, 37, who worked in resort schools for 15 years before the incident last February, was one of six staff members suspended from the Grasmere Road school.
The staff, including headteacher Cath Woodall, who later retired, were suspended over concerns about “professional judgement” in relation to pupils “when isolating them during challenging behaviour”, Blackpool Council said at the time.
The incident happened in the school’s specialist unit for children and behavioural problems – called the SERF unit – which has since been closed down after council bosses said they were not satisfied with the way it was run.
Police were called in to investigate but later dropped the inquiry saying there was no conduct found which warranted criminal prosecution.
An internal inquiry by Blackpool Council has now been dealt with, and has seen some staff returning to their posts and one taking the decision to an employment tribunal, while Mrs Smith was told she had lost her job.
Now Mrs Smith, who has not contested the authority’s decision to sack her, has claimed calls for support from the council, which then had control of the school, were not acted upon, leaving teachers verbally or physically assaulted by children no older than 11, on a regular basis.
She said: “[When the child was in the room] we needed to make sure everything was secure and safe and to make sure he was calm.
“I said I knew he shouldn’t be in there but we wanted to get everything safe, that it was right and safe for him and everyone else in school.
“I thought if I told the truth in the disciplinary everything would be OK. I asked the panel what they would have done.
“I would have done the same again because it was so frightening. I was really, really scared.”
She added: “It is a very, very challenging job and without support from local authorities teachers can’t do it.
“It was the most extreme incident I’ve ever known, but chairs and tables would be thrown across the classrooms, it was a very challenging place.
“Teachers were assaulted regularly and sworn at. Some of the behaviour was a level we couldn’t manage.
“Children would leave classrooms and run around, disturbing other lessons and staff.”
The Gazette first reported the incident on February 26, 2013, and later reported that it was believed a boy had made threats to use a knife but did not have a knife on him.
On March 4 The Gazette revealed another, separate, investigation was underway at school after two children ran away from school unattended during lessons.
Mrs Smith added: “I just hope something really bad doesn’t happen in Blackpool.
“All teachers here are so worried on what they can and can’t do.
“Teachers aren’t protected, everything seems to be against teachers, they’re not allowed to do anything to protect themselves.”
Blackpool Council bosses have defended their work with the troubled school and have stressed it is now moving forward.
Coun Ivan Taylor, cabinet member for schools on Blackpool Council, said: “Much has been said about this incident and it is really disappointing that members of staff that no longer work for the school have chosen to speak out in this way.
“This young boy didn’t have a knife, he didn’t have a weapon but he was locked in a room.
“This council is never going to find that an acceptable way of dealing with a vulnerable child.
“The SERF unit, where this happened, is where pupils with emotional and behavioural problems are educated.
“There’s no doubt these units are a challenging place to work and the staff who choose to work in such environments are trained accordingly.”
Mrs Smith started her teaching career at Palatine Sports College and moved to Revoe in 2008 where she worked in the Special Education Referral Facility (SERF) unit before taking on the role of SENCO and teaching in Year One in the 12 months before the incident.
She told how the specialist unit included a room used as a “chill out area” for children.
It is alleged this is the room the boy was locked in during the incident in February.
Former headteacher Cath Woodall last year told The Gazette the lock had been fitted on the outside of one of the rooms to stop children from getting into it by themselves.
Mrs Smith said: “It was a really hard job, there were issues daily with child protection but I knew what I was taking on and I feel I made a really positive impact on a lot of children.
“We had children from some really challenging areas, from all over Blackpool, we were working really hard, doing our best to support them.
“The headteacher was shouting for help and support and it just didn’t come.
“The local authority didn’t do anything to support us.”
During the disciplinary proceedings with Blackpool Council Mrs Smith said she challenged education bosses on how they would have dealt with the situation and has even said if in the same situation again she would likely act in the same manner.
The school has now converted to academy status, working with Anchorsholme and Devonshire primary schools and Park Special School in a multi-academy trust. It is led by new headteacher Dayle Harrison.
The SERF unit in which the incident in February happened has since been decommissioned.
Coun Taylor added: “The school is now flourishing under new leadership and as a council we are supporting them every step of the way as they look to improve the educational attainment of their pupils.”