Northern Ireland

Teacher Stephen Downes gets suspended sentence after assaulting girls

Lisburn courthouse
Image caption Stephen Downes was convicted of two charges at Lisburn Magistrates' Court last month

A special needs teacher who was found guilty of cruelty to children after he assaulted two 12-year-old girls who have severe learning difficulties has been given a six-month sentence suspended for two years.

Stephen Downes, 59, from Glebe Gardens in Moira, is a teacher at Parkview Special School, Lisburn, County Antrim.

He had denied hitting a child's face after she took another pupil's milk.

He also denied assaulting a second girl who then fell against a radiator.

The children both attend Parkview Special School where Downes had been a senior teacher since 1997.

The offences took place in late 2010 and early 2011.

He had faced a total of five charges but the judge at Lisburn Magistrates' Court dismissed three of them and found him guilty of two charges.

District Judge Rosemary Watters said it was "hard to imagine more vulnerable victims than those in this case".

A lawyer for Downes said that his client did have issues with stress management and said that although he still maintained his innocence and intended to appeal the convictions, he was "genuinely extremely sorry for the impact" his behaviour had on the pupils.

He said that when the offences came to light Downes was suspended, but that following his convictions he was sacked, and added that given the dismissal and his age, the particular circumstances that gave rise to such stress would not happen again.

He said Downes "should never" have been alone in a closed room with any pupil but submitted that often, especially in a special school, stressful situations can develop "in moments".

Judge Watters said the case "definitely" met the criteria for a jail term but added that given Downes' personal background and clear record, she was suspending the jail term.

She warned Downes that should he commit any further offences, he would have to serve the six months in addition to any other sentence imposed, but also told him she "did not expect that" he would.