The High Court has quashed the decision of the St. Joseph’s Convent Kingstown (SJCK) to expel a student and the Ministry of Education to transfer her to the Emmanuel High School Mesopotamia (EHSM) in 2013.
In her July 17, 2016 ruling, acting High Court judge, Justice Pearletta E. Lanns, also ordered that the students’ file/record at SJCK “reflect that she was entitled to be accorded a fair hearing by the Cluny Board on the issue of her transfer/expulsion from the SJCK; and that was not so accorded”.
The SJCK is Government-assisted Catholic school that is run by the Cluny Board of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The student, who was later transferred to Thomas Saunders Secondary School, a government-owned institution, has since graduated, her lawyer, Jomo Thomas told iWitness News on Wednesday.
The facts in the case are that in a March 13, 2013 letter, Principal of SJCK, Calma Balcombe informed the student’s mother that her daughter had been suspended for two days because of “disrespect to the teacher”.
The letter said that the student was to return to school on March 18, 2013, and informed the child’s parent that “if you wish to see us we will be available Monday 18th March 2013 at 2:00 p.m.”.
The judge noted that “significantly”, the letter warned that if the student’s disrespect for the teachers continues, she will be dealt with by the “Discipline Committee of the Cluny Board”.
The judge noted that the letter did not elaborate on the reasons for the suspension and did not explain the form of disrespect.
But the court said that from affidavits submitted, there is no dispute that the student did a test, and on Feb. 11, 2013, teacher Junet Bascombe wrote in the student’s book, “This is extremely untidy”.
The student, at some point, wrote on the same page, underneath the teacher’s comments, “like you kitty cat weh na wash”.
During the hearing, Counsel for the Cluny Board, Duane Daniel, sought to place the local interpretation upon the student’s comments, an interpretation that the court said was “not complimentary of either the student or her teacher”.
On March 8, 2013, the student did another test and Bascombe saw the students’ response to her comment.
The judge said she gleaned from the record too that there was an issue of the student refusing to go to the library when told to so do and her walking of the school compound even though she was told not to leave.
The events apparently triggered the two-day suspension, and the March 18, 2013 meeting culminating in the transfer/expulsion of the student.
The court heard that the student was awarded no marks for the test she did and Thomas viewed this as double jeopardy.
The parent and her daughter met with the Senior Education Officer (SEO) for Secondary School, Asfo Stephens; Principal Balcombe; Vice-Principal of SJCK, Antonette Best-Jardine; Dean of Discipline at SJCK, Silta James, Principal of the St. Joseph’s Convent Marriaqua, Sister Jacintha Wallace; and chair of the Cluny Board.
Dispute about meeting outcome
There is a dispute as to whether the meeting decided that the student would be transferred, as her mother said no such decision was expressed.
The defendants — which included Chief Education Officer Lou-Anne Gilchrist along with Stephens and Balcombe, all in their official capacities, along with the Ministry of Education and the Cluny Board of Management — disagreed with the student’s mother that no decision was taken to expel the student.
The defendants say that that it was decided that the student would be transferred for SJCK and would not return to the school after the end of the term.
No minutes were taken at the meeting.
“However, what is obvious from the affidavits before me, is that the meeting was convened in a most unhealthy climate, with temperaments raging, name calling and accusations that teacher Mrs. Junette Bascombe intentionally targeted the student,” the judge commented.
The parent said that the Senior Education Officer called the student “nail hole” and that the principal “ranted” that she did not want the student “back in my school”.
While the principal could not recall saying these words, it was the utterance of those words by the principal that prompted the student’s parent to begin “shopping around for another school, and to this end, she met and had a conversation” with Andrea Bowman, principal of the Girls High School, but that meeting did not produce the desired result, the judge said.
After the March 18, 2013 meeting, the student return to the SJCK and continued to the end of the academic year.
She was asked to select her classes to take in Form 4.
On July 5, 2013, she received her report book, which stated that she was promoted to Form 4s. However, she was not given a book list.
Instead, she was given a letter (apparently in a sealed envelope) addressed to her mother, but which contained an undated copy of a letter addressed to Mr. [Curtis] Greaves, principal of EHSM.
In the letter, which was signed by the Senior Education Officer on behalf of the Chief Education Officer, Greaves’ was told that “a place at your school has been offered to [the student] with effect from August 2013”.
The letter asked Greaves to extend the necessary courtesies to have the student registered at EHSM, adding that she should be placed in Form 4.
But the student’s mother was aggrieved, saying it was the first time she was learning that her daughter was being transferred/expelled from SJCK and offered a place at EHSM.
The student’s mother took the matter to court and in an ex parte application, Justice Frederick Bruce-Lyle granted the parent leave to apply for judicial review and ordered that the student be returned to school.
On application by Attorney General Judith Jones-Morgan, the offer for the student’s return to SJCK was set aside by a judge.
The parent could not understand the move especially because her daughter’s report book said she was promoted for Form 4s.
In his submissions on behalf of the girl’s parent, Tomas identified issues of whether the manner in which the defendants made the decision was procedurally improper, that is, whether they had a duty to give reasons for their actions.
Thomas also wanted the court to rule on whether the defendants failed to take relevant factors into account; whether the defendants failed to act proportionally in their decision, and whether the defendants failed to give his client a fair hearing.
But counsel for the Ministry of Education, Kezron Walters and J-Lany Williams, identified the issues as whether the defendants, excluding the Cluny Board, made the decision to transfer the student from SJCK; whether the decision of those defendants to place the student at EHSM was done in breach of natural justice; and whether the claimant has a right to have a say in the school into which her daughter is placed.
But the judge decided that the questions to be determined were, who made the decision, and whether the decision was procedurally and substantively improper.
The judge said she concluded that the defendants and the persons present at the March 18, 2013 meeting made the decision to transfer/expel.
But she also concluded that the decision was procedurally and substantively improper in that the defendants and the persons who were present at the meeting did not act fairly in coming to their decision to transfer the student.
The judge said that the claimant was afforded no, or no sufficient opportunity to make representations pertaining to the decision to transfer and or expel the student from SJCK.
Two possible interpretations
The judge noted an April 5, 2013 letter from the SKCK principal to the Chief Education Officer and said based on its language, it could be interpreted in two ways.
The first interpretation was as a letter by the principal, in that capacity, requesting on behalf of persons present at the March 18, 2013 meeting that the student be transferred to another school. A second interpretation was as a recommendation to the Chief Education Officer by the Principal, on behalf o the persons present at the same meeting or on behalf of the SJCK, that the student be transferred to another school.
“In my opinion, the letter of 5th April 2013 was a recommendation, (akin to an invitation to treat). It was open to the CEO and the SEO to accept or reject the recommendation,” the judge ruled.
The judge further said that the undated letter to Greaves is proof that the SEO accepted the recommendation and began to put the wheels in motion to facilitate the transfer as requested/recommended, “without carrying out any investigations of their own”.
“Then, by requesting that [the student] ‘should’ be transferred, it gives the impression that a decision was already taken at the meeting and the letter was simply asking the CEO to assist in selecting a school. In the circumstances, I have come to the conclusion that the CEO and the SEO and the persons who were present at the 18th March 2013 meeting collaborated and jointly made the decision to transfer/expel the student from the SJCK,” the judge ruled.
The judge also found that there was no evidence on record that the child’s parent was told expressly of the purpose of the March 18 meeting.
“In fact, the claimant t was not given any notice that there would be a meeting to discuss the transfer/expulsion of the student,” the judge found.
“The letter contained information about the child’s suspension because of disrespect to a teacher. And it gave [the parent] the option to ‘see us’ at the school at 2:00 p.m. suggesting that a meeting had been planned and was going to be held with or without her attendance,” the judge noted.
She further commented that the student’s parent attended of her own volition, and during the meeting the issue of expulsion/transfer arose.
The judge made a declaration that a recommendation for a student to be transferred/expelled from the SJCK should be made by the Dean of the Disciplinary Committee of the school; that the parent/guardian of the child involved should be given notice of such recommendation after having met with the child’s parent/guardian and the child; that the parent/guardian be also given reasonable notice of the date of hearing by the board to determine the issue of the transfer/expulsion, and be supplied with the relevant information and documentary evidence in advance of the hearing so she/he can adequately prepare himself/herself for such meeting.
She also declared that once the Board has voted for the transfer/expulsion, then it is the chairperson of the Board’s Secretary or the Chairperson’s delegate who should make the requisite request of the Ministry that a student be transferred from the school; that, unless the senior education officer is directly/personally affected, he or she should bot be present at a hearing to determine whether or not a student should be transferred or expelled from the SJCK or other government-assisted secondary school which is run by a board of management.
The judge also made an order that if the parties cannot agree on costs, they may make brief submissions within 30 days of the date of receipt of sealed copies of her ruling.