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SNA who resigned after alleged 'miscarriage' remark had 'little faith' in complaints process

The Waterford and Wexford Education and Training Board has maintained it has always handled complaints by staff correctly.

A SPECIAL NEEDS assistant has said she had no confidence that any formal complaints would be investigated ahead of her resigning from her job at a Waterford secondary school.

Andrea Comerford alleged at the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) that, when representing a colleague in a separate case, the Waterford and Wexford Education and Training Board (WWETB) tried to “coerce” the staff member not to proceed with their formal complaint.

The WRC also heard from the then principal of St Paul’s Community College in Waterford city, Noreen Reilly, who rejected Comerford’s claim that she had told her the miscarriage she suffered in 2017 was “probably for the best” as the woman already had older children.

Comerford, who was an SNA at the secondary school from 2005 to 2018 and is from Kill, Co Waterford, has taken her constructive dismissal case under section 8 of the Unfair Dismissals Act against Waterford-Wexford Education and Training Board (WWETB).

It is Comerford’s case that she had no choice but to resign following what she claimed were several incidents of “bullying and harassment” suffered during her time working at the school. 

The WWETB and Reilly disputes Comerford’s version of events and argued it sought to help during difficult periods in her life.

Reilly said she felt that she and Comerford had a “very friendly, cordial relationship” until the latter’s resignation in 2018.

Mary-Paula Guinness, junior counsel for the WWETB, argued that the case comes down to whether Comerford engaged in the internal complaints process correctly under legislation, before handing in her notice.

Comerford said she had “started a grievance procedure” before deciding on resigning from the job.

“Anytime I spoke to HR about raising a grievance I was told it was a managerial style and that it was not their issue,” Comerford said.

She said she sent an email in June 2017 to Reilly where she claimed she had felt “upset and intimidated” over how the principal spoke to her at a meeting, and claimed at the time she had would consider pursuing a grievance if the alleged behaviour continued.

Comerford agreed with defence counsel that she did not pursue any complaints in the months following the email.

Grievance procedure

As part of Comerford’s case, her trade union representative Tom Creedon alleged staff in the WWETB had found it “doesn’t operate the grievance procedure correctly and sometimes, not at all”.

He and fellow union representative Una Dunphy told the hearing they had “nine witness statements” from staff members.

Dunphy alleged to adjudicator Gaye Cunningham they had submitted the statements as sworn affidavits rather than calling people to give evidence “because of the toxicity of the workplace” which was “preventing them coming forward as witnesses”.

The WRC heard two of these were from staff at Reilly’s current workplace, Waterford College of Further Education.

Counsel for WWETB said the statements were turning the WRC into a “circus” and argued against their inclusion.

Cunningham ruled against accepting the affidavits as they were not witness statements “of what happened” in the incidents alleged by the SNA in the case.

Comerford told the WRC that she had little faith in the internal grievance procedure.

She alleged that, as union representative for Impact, she found that one SNA’s attempt to make a complaint was met by WWETB management offering “to hold onto the complaint to mind it for her until she could make up her mind”, as the worker was under a lot of stress at that time.

Comerford claimed complaints were not formally concluded with no record existing of the results.

Responding under oath, the HR director for the WWETB Anne Marie Jones said she “can say hand on heart” that the grievance procedures in the school and the region were always followed correctly.

She agreed with Comerford’s representative Tom Creedon that this would mean a formal complaint would be dealt with in a matter of weeks, “as quickly as possible”.

When Creedon alleged one grievance procedure took “14 months” to process, Jones said she would make “no comment because it’s not relevant”.

“The difficulty people have with the WWETB is that it doesn’t operate the grievance procedure correctly and sometimes, not at all,” Creedon said.

Jones said she categorically denied the claim and said that all grievances are followed correctly.

Creedon also questioned Reilly on whether she had processed grievances during her time as principal, to which she said she would not answer the question and disputed its relevancy.

She added that she did not want to discuss employment details at the hearing.

‘Kissing ass’

At the hearing under cross-examination, Comerford was asked about a series of text messages at different points during her five years working under Reilly.

Guinness pointed to how Comerford left an ‘X’ at the end of text messages to Reilly as a “demonstration of affection” and their good relationship.

She added that Comerford had expressed fulsome thanks to Reilly at different points for her “support” to her as she struggled with issues in her personal life, including a family illness.

She said in a letter sent to Reilly on March 28 2018, two months before Comerford’s resignation, the SNA told her employer she had been struggling for some time.

In the letter to the principal, Comerford said she had to cope with the fallout of an accident at the school when she struck her head off a pillar, which was followed shortly after by her miscarriage, and asked if she would be allowed a career break even though a time limit for such had elapsed.

The hearing heard that Reilly had agreed to try to accommodate Comerford’s request.

“You didn’t raise any formal grievance and ultimately resigned,” Guinness said.

Addressing some of her messages, Comerford said they “reek of kissing ass” and added that she wanted to be polite with Reilly.

“I also send an ‘X’ to my current boss, to my children and my friends, to most people I know,” Comerford said.

“I would say I was doing everything in my power to sustain a good relationship with the principal because not having one wasn’t working for me.”

Reilly said she had come to St Paul’s Community College in 2013 following periods in adult education in the prison service and in Traveller education programmes.

She disputed Comerford’s claims that she was singled out and “followed around” the school at different periods.

“Obviously if I met an SNA in the corridor without a student I would ask where is her student . . . the role of an SNA is to ensure a student is as engaged as possible,” Reilly said.

“At no point should an SNA be alone in a corridor without a student.”

Previously, Comerford told the WRC she had represented fellow SNAs and advocated for students with disabilities and felt she was “punished” for this.

She said she was “constantly asked what I was doing” if seen in the corridor, “followed” at other times in the school by Reilly and “some teachers”.

“I really felt I was the problem,” she said at the first sitting last August.

She added: “It led to me questioning myself…I saw a GP, I saw a psychiatrist, I went to various self help groups. I took up cognitive behavioural therapy. I joined the union. I really thought I was going crazy. I needed somebody else to tell me is this me?

“As it happens in my therapies it became very apparent I was being bullied,” she claimed.