Second employment tribunal follows ‘serious fight’
THE headteacher of a Gospel Oak primary school yesterday (Wednesday) explained again why two members of staff were fired for “a violent and serious fight” at a Christmas party.
Jacquie Phelan said nursery nurse Nicola Hearne had been fired from Carlton School for gross misconduct, the same sanction handed to teaching support assistant Phillipa Heath-Philpotts last year.
She was speaking at an employment tribunal brought by Ms Hearne, who claims she was unfairly dismissed.
Her legal representative argued Ms Phelan did not properly investigate an incident in which Ms Hearne and Ms Heath-Philpotts clashed in the street after the school staff party at a hotel in Bloomsbury in December 2008.
Both women blame each other for the incident which witnesses said involved punches, hair-pulling and wrestling to the ground.
Ms Hearne said she had suffered a black eye and swollen lip, while Ms Heath-Philpotts was seen in school the following Monday by Ms Phelan with a scratch on her arm and a “red cheek”, a panel of three work tribunal judges heard yesterday.
Ms Heath-Philpotts admitted throwing a punch after being provoked, but lost her own case for unfair dismissal in November.
Now Ms Hearne has brought her own proceedings, which opened yesterday with evidence from Ms Phelan and Mick Farrant, the chairman of governors at the well-respected primary school in Grafton Road.
Ms Phelan said it was “hard to understand” why Ms Hearne had not left the scene of the incident if she, as she said in her version of events, wanted to walk away from the confrontation.
The tribunal was told Ms Hearne was heard to say “bring it on” to the other woman and Ms Phelan added: “If you are feeling so threatened that a member of staff is towering over you and you say you want to walk away, why don’t you walk away? I find it very difficult to understand. It doesn’t tally.”
Ms Hearne claims the other woman was “constantly following her around” and provoking her. She was the first to go to the police afterwards, although both women made complaints. Detectives investigated but decided not to pursue the matter.
Ms Phelan, who has been at Carlton for four years, admitted she did not know how the dispute began and that it was difficult to work out who landed the first blow.
“It was my job to get the facts. It was very unclear from the witnesses I spoke to,” she said.
Under cross-examination, Ms Phelan described the party scene at the hotel, which she herself left early.
Asked if she was concerned by the amount of alcohol being drunk, Ms Phelan said: “They are adults and you would expect staff to adhere to the code of conduct.”
She added that at least one member of staff was “extremely drunk” and needed help in the hotel’s toilets, and that the woman’s account of the incident later in the evening was not given much weight in her investigation.
To five separate questions, Ms Phelan replied: “I think I did things in the correct way.” She flatly denied a suggestion that the incident had been used as an excuse to “get rid of Nicki”.
The headteacher first learned of the incident when Ms Hearne phoned her the day afterwards. Later, Ms Phelan was shown mobile phone pictures of Ms Hearne’s alleged injuries. Ms Phelan said that staff at the school had the job of dealing with potentially vulnerable pupils and parents, and worked on diffusing conflict.
“Here I was faced with two members of staff who had potentially done the complete opposite,” she said.
Both Ms Hearne and Ms Heath-Philpotts were suspended with full pay after the incident but were later fired.
Mr Farrant, who chaired the disciplinary panel at the school which decided to dismiss the two women, said: “One person assaulted the other. Both people had said they were the victim. Our view was that both were the victim and both were the perpetrator.”
The tribunal continues.