A NSW primary school teacher who says she attempted suicide after being bullied by her principal and isolated by her colleagues for more than a year has received a six-figure settlement from her school authority.
Helen Frances*, 53, was a full-time casual teacher at a northern NSW school for nearly seven years, and said there was a “wonderful environment and a good, collaborative staff culture” before the arrival of a new principal.
Mrs Frances said the culture soon started to “become toxic”, with staff becoming disengaged and unhappy with the pressure being placed on them.
“I decided to go and have a chat with the new principal, once informally and then once in the form of letter, without realising I was setting myself up as a target,” she said.
Mrs Frances said she started hearing negative things about her being circulated among the staff and other teachers soon began ignoring her in the staffroom.
“It’s a very sinister form of bullying where you start to isolate the person. I’d go to the staffroom and sit next to someone just to say ‘hi’, and if the principal came in they would get up and move,” Mrs Frances said.
She said the principal would humiliate her in front of other teachers and students, and once suggested Mrs Frances should be made redundant when all staff were present.
“The people you would generally turn to if you needed support in the classroom or ideas on how to work with a child, suddenly you don’t have that, you’re just no longer included,” Mrs Frances said.
“I can’t even begin to explain what that does to one’s entire psyche.
“Initially I just started getting sick, getting colds, my immune system went into decline.”
She said she started having nightmares and suffering from anxiety that left her shaking physically when she was left alone with the principal.
“I was trapped in something called the worst trifecta of a situation, when you’re working in a toxic environment and you have difficult financial circumstances,” said Mrs Frances, who has two children.
“I was the main breadwinner and it started affecting everything around me including my relationship with my husband.
“And I didn’t have any other option for employment. I was being blackballed.
“I eventually tried to commit suicide. It left me with no other option, I felt like I was a burden and not any use to anybody.”
Mrs Frances said “in some ways, that was a blessing in disguise” because it prompted her to leave the school and seek medical attention.
However, she said she has “never been able to get over it” and will never be able to go back to teaching, which “was not just a job … it was something that I really loved”.
“Teaching is very full-on and I can’t concentrate for very long, I don’t really go out, I go to sleep for a few hours from 11am every day otherwise my brain doesn’t function,” said Mrs Frances, who now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.
“My medication has bad side effects. I’m learning to cope with it.”
Mrs Frances’ lawyer, Fiona Burns, a senior associate at Slater and Gordon, said the Workers Compensation Commission found in Mrs Frances’ favour in 2014 and required that her school authority pay weekly benefits and cover medical costs.
In 2015, Ms Burns started investigating a work injury damages claim and a claim of negligence against the school.
“One of the tests is that the injury needs to be of a certain severity, the threshold is a whole-person impairment of 15 per cent,” Ms Burns said.
“[Mrs Frances] was medically assessed as having a severe injury. Her whole-person impairment was determined to be 22 per cent … they assess how well the person can function in their daily life, their ability to take part in society, maintain family or close relationships, care for themselves, and work.”
Ms Burns said an educational expert found that the school didn’t “act appropriately to eliminate the risk to Helen of her psychiatric injury”.
“Given they were aware of her deteriorating condition, the school should have introduced measures to eliminate the risk to her,” Ms Burns said.
The parties reached the six-figure settlement during compulsory mediation before the matter went to the NSW District Court.
Mrs Frances said her aim now is to make more people aware of workplace bullying and isolation, especially in professions such as teaching, nursing and the university sector.
She said the principal is still working at the school.
*Real name and school details have been withheld for legal reasons.
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