Northern Ireland

Principal's harassment ordeal by pupil's parent

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Media captionHead teacher has 'seen the worst of people'

A County Down school principal who was harassed for over a year by a parent of two pupils has described her ordeal as the man responsible was sentenced.

Julie Thomas told a court she was repeatedly verbally abused by the man, who took photos of her outside school and once showed up outside her home.

On another occasion, he allegedly shouted at her: "If this school was run by a man it would be better."

Gerard Knight, of Cayman Drive, Bangor, was given a suspended sentence.

Restraining order

The 38-year-old father-of-two had contested the harassment charge, but the judge at Ards Magistrates' Court said the prosecution case was "the easiest I have come across in terms of credibility".

The judge also imposed a restraining order on Knight, saying: "This lady has suffered from him for a long time, and it has got to stop."

Ms Thomas, who is the head teacher of Clandeboye Primary School in Bangor, told BBC News NI she has taken security measures at her home as a result of the campaign of harassment from April 2016 until June 2017.

The court heard the problems began after the board of governors temporarily banned Knight from the school premises.

'Very intimidated'

The ban followed allegations that he had approached a child in the school and "pinned the child to a wall' after an incident involving his son.

Police investigated the incident as an alleged assault but no charges were brought and Knight was then allowed back into the school.

Image copyright Clandeboye Primary School
Image caption Knight began taking photos of the principal outside the school and posted them on Facebook

The school's governors asked the principal to hand Knight a parents' code of conduct, but he refused to accept the envelope from her and demanded that she call the chair of the board of governors to speak to him.

The following term, Knight's eldest child was suspended from the school and he became verbally aggressive in a confrontation that was witnessed by other staff members.

Ms Thomas told the court Knight shouted aloud in the school: 'If this school was run by a man it would be better."

She added: "I was very intimidated... I was in fear of being struck."

Facebook photographs

The principal later sobbed in the witness box as she recounted how on one Saturday morning, Knight cycled along her street and stopped outside her home.

She said he left but returned soon after, and looked straight into her front room before moving away again.

On another date, Knight shouted and swore at the principal's husband as he collected their daughter from primary school.

He also posted photographs he took of Ms Thomas outside the school on Facebook, along with screenshots of her correspondence, alleging she had lied to police and discriminated against special needs children.

However, the judge said Knight's Facebook entries showed he was "irrational to the point of paranoia".

He added: 'I'm always bemused at the amount of people exposing themselves, as it were, on Facebook. The defendant takes a photo of a head mistress outside her own school, at 08:15."

Knight said he was "not an aggressive person" and had apologised in writing for questioning the principal's ability to do her job because she was a woman.

A defence lawyer said his client had no memory of stopping outside the teacher's address and denied shouting at her husband while he was picking up their daughter.

But the judge said: "The idea that he turned up outside her home being pure happenstance is a nonsense. It is a lie."

'Increasingly aggressive'

Speaking to BBC News NI, Ms Thomas said: "No training would ever prepare you for what I have gone through".

She said she was thankful that the judge took her seriously but she is still unable to rest easy because of Knight's past behaviour.

"He was increasingly aggressive, and would be shouting at me saying I wasn't fit to run a school, that women shouldn't be running schools and that the principal should be a man.

"This gentleman was outside my house. He was taking pictures of myself, my car registration and posting them on social media along with allegations which were untrue".

Image caption Julie Thomas was issued with a personal protection alarm by the police

She described how she first noticed Knight outside her home in May 2017.

"On a Saturday morning I was in my home and I could see that he was outside looking in through windows.

"That worried me, I wanted to keep my family safe and my work separate from my private life".

Security measures

Ms Thomas said Clandeboye Primary School had to constantly review security and that her colleagues feared for her safety.

"I had staff who have actually witness statements that said they were afraid that I was going to be physically attacked, and on a number of occasions staff felt they couldn't leave my side because they felt I was in imminent danger.

"Luckily, I'm in a school where I get great support from the majority of the parents and the parents know who I am and what sort of a school we are. Most of the parents knew that it was untrue," she said.

Reflecting on the past two years Ms Thomas said that she never anticipated she would have to go through something like this.

"I have taken security measures at my home to protect myself and my family and I will continue to follow the advice I was given by the police about my personal safety.

"I have seen the best of people but I have seen the worst of people and no training would prepare you for what I have gone through."

Knight was sentenced to four months in jail, but the prison term was suspended for three years.

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