As the board of governors of Dulwich College meets to decide whether to reinstate its head, whom they have cleared of sexual harassment allegations, a group of parents offer some advice
Thursday 02 November 1995
"Sensitive" seems an odd word to use, though, when we learn for the first time that Mr Verity has been cleared of allegations of sexual harassment towards his secretary. Perhaps "optimistic" or "helpful" might have been more appropriate. In the light of such an announcement, might we not assume relief all round? After all, with your lengthy investigation, we can at least have faith in the fairness of your decision. Yet he has not yet been reinstated.
While you ponder the day ahead we ask you to consider several issues. On the face of it, they may seem relevant only to Dulwich College; but under the watchful eye of the Headmasters' Conference, they may have implications elsewhere.
On the first day of term, we learnt through a terse note to parents that the Master had been suspended. By now, you will be aware of the strength of feeling aroused by such a discourteous letter: it was a classic PR blunder of the kind designed to alienate the "client" You cannot have meant to do this, but it was a portent of what was to come.
While many parents felt a collective sigh of relief ("Is that all?") when we became aware of the allegation, we realised that you, our governors, would be charged with conducting a formal, procedural investigation into the same.
Then the "buts" begin. We learn that the matter was first raised formally in mid-June, and later we learn that it began informally before that. Governors, this will not do. A charge that is considered by yourselves to be so serious as to merit suspension after two months of summer holidays requires immediate action.
During that first week of term, we continued to read fascinating comments from your clerk and "senior management sources", who implied an outcome before any investigation had begun. Yet, in the meantime, when a parent contacted the governing body, through your clerk, stating that she had information relevant to the matter, she was told that such proceedings "may not even be necessary". Despite letters sent to confirm the above, she was not contacted by the board again.
The parent, Ms Deborah Roslund, finally gave evidence but only when she had independently contacted solicitors acting on behalf of the Master. In the event, she met with hostility from senior staff also present. Ms Roslund also says she was treated in a "hostile" manner by governors, who treated her statement with scepticism. She concluded that "they had made up their minds already".
Governors, we understand that in you have to act as judge and jury. But we expect you to abide by the principle of "natural justice": in other words, that not only should justice be done, but that justice should be seen to be done.
We have a suggestion: the Governing Bodies Association. You may be aware of its existence because you are members of it. One of its functions is to offer professional advice to lay governors facing contractual and procedural problems. The request for such advice has to be made by the individual board. We assume, of course, that you have made such a request. Haven't you ...?
Finally, we have the joint statement released last weekend by the board and Mr Verity, confirming that he has been cleared of all allegations. Why in that case did you issue a press statement, confirmed by journalists, on Friday 20 October, saying that the matter remained "undecided"? Why did you not release the true account that the allegation was unfounded at that time? Was this being "economical with the truth"?
Is anyone going to come out of this well? Apparently not, with one glaring exception: Anthony Verity. He has acted with extraordinary fortitude throughout. His honour and professional reputation are restored by being cleared of the allegation. His is the kind of moral and professional leadership that stands as a fine example to the boys at Dulwich College and to the rest of us. May his return to his post be quiet and uneventful.
If this is not so, governors beware. It may seem easier to hope he will just go away, the mess buried with him. But if Mr Verity is armlocked into resignation, you risk all. By far the harder decision for you is to reinstate him, but it is the only honourable course open to you.
Deborah Roslund, Sue Cox, M. and M. Davie, Madeline Johnston, Diane Bonnet
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