A senior teacher at a top private school, rocked by teenage suicides, lost her job after telling a student in front of classmates ‘we were afraid you were going to die,’ a tribunal heard.
Katie O’Hara, head of English at the £36,000-a-year Windermere School, ignored the advice not to learn texts about suicide – even upset another student by instructing her class to tear a sensitive page out of a book halfway through the lesson.
This happened just weeks after two 14-year-old students committed suicide in late 2019, raising concerns among the school community about a possible ‘cluster’ of suicides.
An employment tribunal ruled that Ms O’Hara, who entered the 159-year-old school in 2015 with more than 17 years’ experience as an English teacher in ‘well-known’ private schools, had not been unfairly dismissed.
She resigned in writing in October 2020, claiming she had left due to a poor work environment – but concerns had already been raised about her “erratic behaviour”.
In the period following the tragedies, Ms. O’Hara, who became head of English in 2018, planned to teach Antigone.
The ancient Greek tragedy by playwright Sophocles contains several suicide deaths.
The £36,000-a-year Windermere School, where the head of England’s Katie O’Hara lost her job after telling a pupil ‘we were afraid you’d die’ in front of classmates, pictured
The tribunal heard that she had been ordered to “choose another book” against then-director Ian Lavender.
He told her, “For obvious reasons, no texts studied in a year group for the remainder of this academic year should mention suicide or death by hanging.”
Despite this, Ms. O’Hara planned to continue teaching the text — and a stack of Antigone books was spotted “ready to go out” to students, the panel was told.
During a lesson on Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Ms. O’Hara told students to tear out a page discussing suicide – a female student became so upset that she left class .
After the suicides, an alert system was installed on the school’s computer that picked up on Internet materials that students had access to, the hearing was told.
After an alert was triggered by a student’s search for Star Wars memes, Ms. O’Hara entered the classroom where he was taught by fellow English teacher Elizabeth Loughlin.
In the silence of the room she asked the boy if he was okay and said “we were afraid you were going to die” – words the other teacher and the students could all hear.
Following this incident, the headteacher said in an email to Ms Loughlin: ‘It is my expectation that’ [Ms O’Hara] does not come to school on Monday.
“If she does, I’ll send her away.”
Windermere School, a boarding and day school for children aged 3 to 18, was ‘deeply affected’ by the suicides of its two students – Pierre DaCosta Noble and Fionnuala Ryan.
An inquest found that Pierre – a boarder – had been the victim of bullying and committed suicide after classmates smeared feces in his pillow and in one of his boots.
He was found by two seniors.
Pierre had confided in Fionnuala about the bullying. She was badly affected by her classmate’s suicide. Weeks later, the schoolgirl, described as one of the school’s “shining stars,” was found dead at home.
After the tragedies, the suicide prevention charity Papyrus was called in to help staff teach students “in a way that kept them safe and enabled their education without overwhelming it (and them).”
French-born Pierre DaCosta Noble was found hanged on November 9 on the grounds of the prestigious Windermere School in the Lake District. Pierre had confided in classmate Fionnuala Ryan about the bullying, who was later found dead at home as well.
But the tribunal heard that concerns had been raised about Ms. O’Hara’s behavior and whether it was “in accordance with the advice and instructions on teaching” at the school after the two suicides.
According to Ms. O’Hara, who claimed she had been unfairly fired, she had been treated unfavorably in meetings after raising concerns about the approach taken by other teachers to the upcoming International Baccalaureate exams.
She also objected to a disciplinary investigative meeting to which she was invited, alleging that Ms. Loughlin was trying to pressure her to leave so she could take on the role of head of the faculty.
She went on sick leave from January 2020, until her employment ended in April 2021.
But she told the tribunal that Windermere School refused to give her full pay in the second six months of her absence, despite the fact that she suffered a mental breakdown as a direct result of the school’s treatment of her.
Ms. O’Hara argued that this decision amounted to not making reasonable accommodations for her, and was discrimination in relation to her disability.
An employment court ruled that Ms O’Hara had not been unfairly fired
After her grievances were dismissed by the school, Ms. O’Hara appealed, which was also rejected, saying that “her confidence in the school had been ‘completely eroded.'”
All of Ms O’Hara’s claims against Windermere Educational Trust and her colleagues were dismissed by the tribunal, which found that the school did not unlawfully discriminate or breach its duty to make reasonable accommodations for her.
Founded in 1863, Windermere School was named Sunday Times International Baccalaureate School of the Year for 2017-2018 and is a member of Round Square and the Society of Headmasters & Headmistresses of Independent Schools.
The school’s website has a Wellness tab, with information about where students can go if they need help with their mental health.
For confidential support, call the Samaritans at 116123 or visit a local Samaritans office, see: www.samaritans.org for details.