Teacher 'ignored girl bullied by pupils': Disabled woman makes history by suing education authority

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The Independent Online
A DISABLED woman made legal history yesterday when she sued her local education authority over alleged psychological bullying when she was at school.

Becky Walker, 20, a law student who has suffered from cerebral palsy since birth, had developed post-traumatic stress disorder because of the treatment she received at the hands of pupils at Bolsover Comprehensive School, Nottingham County Court was told.

Miss Walker, who lives with her parents in Bolsover, Derbyshire, is claiming damages from Derbyshire County Council, who she alleges failed in its duty of care to prevent the bullying.

Peter Hepple QC, who appears for Miss Walker, told Judge Thomas Heald that the stress disorder was severe, had affected her for a number of years and continued to do so.

The legal action is seen by lawyers as a test case that could establish whether education authorities can be held legally responsible for safeguarding youngsters from bullying at school.

Mr Hepple said the cerebral palsy had affected all four of Miss Walker's limbs and her speech, which resulted in a number of mobility problems and handicapped her in many forms of manual activity. But despite this she had achieved considerable academic success, with nine Grade A passes in her GCSE examinations and later three Grade A passes in her A-level examinations.

In October, 1992, she was admitted to the prestigious Faculty of Law at Nottingham University.

Mr Hepple described how in 1987 Miss Walker was invited to join the comprehensive's nationally-renowned steel band by the head of the lower school, David Gibbons. She had described this as 'the biggest achievement of my life'.

But from the start her presence was a source of resentment from three other girls in the band who started a campaign of whispering, staring and passing remarks calculated to make her life a misery, he said.

There were also a number of occasions when the steel pans used by Miss Walker were deliberately put away in the knowledge that, because of her disability, she could not carry them herself. She resigned from the band in September 1988 as a result of the alleged behaviour for much of that year.

'The staff breached the duty of care that was owed to her, causing her to develop the condition which, at one stage, seriously threatened her university career,' Mr Hepple said. 'We submit that the breach of duty was wilful and persistent in so far as it was committed by one member of staff and notwithstanding complaints made to him, he chose to ignore the behaviour.'

He added: 'The matters complained of can realistically be described as bullying by fellow pupils - not in the traditional accepted sense of direct physical violence, but in more subtle ways - offensive remarks, gestures and staring calculated to intimidate and to make her life a misery.' The action may be the first of its kind where the damage sustained was of a psychological nature.

Mr Hepple said he would call medical evidence from doctors involved in treating soldiers who had returned from the Falklands conflict, and witnesses of the Hillsborough football stadium disaster who suffered from a similar disorder. He said symptoms of PTS included flashbacks and sleeplessness.

The case continues.