As one teacher is cleared of pupil assault, another tells of her life sentence

Court case lifts lid on rising tide of violence in the classroom
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The Independent Online

Three decades of an unblemished record as a teacher were restored to Lynda May yesterday as she walked out of court, sobbing, after being cleared of assaulting a pupil.

In what her union described as a victory for common sense, the 54-year-old was found not guilty of assault causing actual bodily harm by hitting a 12-year-old pupil's thumbnail with a glue stick. An emotional Mrs May welcomed the verdict but said "the whole process has taken a toll on my health".

The case has provided an insight into behaviour in schools, with Mrs May telling the court that she had been severely bitten, kicked, punched and pushed by unruly pupils.

In the pre-election debates, David Cameron said that 17,000 teachers had been attacked by pupils in a year, while a survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) found that a quarter of all school staff had been forced to deal with violence from a pupil. Teachers in primary schools were most at risk, with almost half being assaulted physically at some stage.

The ATL's general secretary, Dr Mary Bousted, said: "Our members tell us that children are becoming disruptive at younger ages, and we have heard some horrifying reports of teachers being attacked by young children."

Yesterday, The Independent visited the home of Caroline Knight, a teacher who was left partially paralysed after a nine-year-old boy threw her against a metal cabinet when she tried to stop him beating another child with a ruler.

The 46-year-old mother of three said the public remained unaware of the extent of the problem, and called for greater funding and expertise to deal with children with behavioural difficulties instead of expecting staff with little training to cope with violent pupils.

"You would be surprised how regularly teachers are injured just by doing their job and the number of children that are verbally and physically abusive," she said, citing cases where a teacher was partially blinded and another miscarried.

It has taken her eight years to get compensation for a broken back, disabled right leg and incontinence which has led to 12 operations, cancer scares and repeated infections. She can only walk very short distances and requires a wheelchair most of the time.

Despite being in and out of hospital constantly since 2002 and having to completely adapt her home while her husband Pete gave up his job to care for her, Southwark Council initially offered her a "derisory" £12,000. The case eventually went to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, which agreed a settlement this week.

The nine-year-old boy, who Mrs Knight taught at Heber Primary School in Dulwich, had behavioural difficulties and was frequently aggressive. When she tried to stop him hitting another child with a metal ruler, he pushed her with such force that her spinal cord was compressed, three vertebrae damaged and one shattered.

Unable to walk, she was driven home and it was not until she saw her doctor the next day that she was rushed to hospital. As she was waiting to have surgery, the head teacher called to say the child's mother was angry and wanted an explanation.

Because of the ongoing legal case, she was banned from returning to work at the school. "I was devastated. I had to leave everything there. It was bad enough having the injury and trying to live with it, but I also felt like I had been brushed under the carpet," she said.

Mrs Knight can now only work limited hours helping special needs pupils. "I blame the local education authority," she said. "The LEA should have their finger on the pulse of what is going on in their schools and ensure there are the resources and expertise to deal with such children. I think there needs to be more specialist training."

A Southwark Council spokesperson said: "We do everything in our power to protect teachers from violence. Such incidents are thankfully rare – but when they do occur, we work hard with the police to make sure any crime reported is investigated and punished; we make sure that the victim gets all the support they need and that we learn any lessons that come out of the incident."

Mrs Knight said the irony was that, if she had managed successfully to control the boy, her career could have been ruined: "If I had managed to grab that ruler off that child and, in doing so, cut him, I would not be able to teach any more," she said.

In Mrs May's case, Swansea Crown Court heard that, last September, the boy slammed the glue stick down on the table, hitting the teacher's hand. Mrs May said she mimicked the gesture to demonstrate the inappropriateness of his actions and by accident connected with his thumb.