Bad Apple Bullies

Bad Apple school principals and departmental officers bully classroom teachers into ill health and out of work.

How a northern NSW teacher was bullied, isolated, driven to attempt suicide, and then won Workers' Compensation and a six-figure settlement.

Helen Frances (name withheld for legal reasons), 53, had been a full-time casual teacher at a northern NSW school since 2007.

Teaching was not just a job to Helen, it was something that she really loved. 

She valued the "wonderful environment and good, collaborative staff culture" at her school.

Then, in late 2011, a new principal arrived at the school. 

Just a few weeks into the new "regime", the school culture started to "become toxic". 

Staff became unhappy with the pressure being placed on them.

"It wasn't just me, most teachers were unhappy, staff used to be totally committed but with the (new) principal they totally withdrew".

Helen decided to have an informal chat about workload and morale with the principal.

Then she wrote him a letter.

 

The principal began to humiliate Helen in front of other teachers and students, in some cases for introducing teaching methods and visual stress assessments that he had previously approved. 

Once, when all staff were present, the principal suggested that Helen should be made redundant. 

Helen began to hear negative things about her being circulated among the staff.

Teachers began ignoring her in the staffroom.

When the principal came into the staffroom the teachers would get up and move away from her.  

 

The isolation began to affect Helen's health. 

"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." 

"It got to the point where I was scared to come to school, I was regularly sick and began seeing a psychologist,"she said.

 

Then Helen began having nightmares.

She began to suffer from anxiety and would shake physically when she was alone with the principal.

"I was trapped ... when you're working in a toxic environment and you have difficult financial circumstances," said Helen.

She had two children.

Just prior to the bullying, Helen and her husband had moved into a shed on their property as they built their home.

But due to the income loss, the building works could not be completed. 

Five years later, the family are still living in the shed. 

 

"I was the breadwinner.

"It started affecting everything around me, including my relationship with my husband.

"I didn't have any other option for employment.

"I felt I was a burden and not any use to anybody." 

 

The isolation and bullying continued for more than a year. 

In February 2013, Helen tried to commit suicide.

She says "in some ways, that was a blessing in disguise" because it prompted her to leave the school and seek medical help. 


Helen says she will never be able to go back to teaching. 

"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," says Helen, who now suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression."

"My doctors have told me the impact the PTSD has had is similar to suffering an acquired brain injury," Helen said.

"I still don't cope, I can't really go out and be around many people - I avoid going far from home." 

Her medication has had bad side effects.

 

Helen's lawyer is Fiona Burns, a senior associate at Slater and Gordon.

Ms Burns said the Workers Compensation Commission found in Helen's favour in 2014.

Her school authority was required to pay weekly benefits and cover medical costs.

 

In 2015, Mrs 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. 

"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."

Helen was medically assessed as having a severe injury.

Her whole-person impairment was determined to be 22 per cent. 

An education 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 a six-figure settlement during complusory mediation before the matter went to the NSW District Court.

 

"This has been an extremely traumatic time for Helen, it has had an enormous impact on her professional and personal life since late 2011," Ms Burns said. 

 

Ms Burns said, "Anyone suffering workplace bullying should seek help because no job should have a negative impact on a person's life." 

 

Helen has started writing a book on workplace bullying.

"The only way to deal with workplace bullying is to proactively address negative behaviours, a lack of leadership allows bullying behaviours to thrive," she said.

"Workplace bullying is about a complete system breakdown."

  

 

The principal is still working at the school. 



Teacher will not return to classroom after being bullied by principal, Slater and Gordon media release, 15 September 2017

Teacher awarded six-figure payout after being bullied by school principal, Pallavi Singhal, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 September 2017  

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