Sins of Omission

BBC News is reporting that a teacher who attacked a 14-year-old pupil with a dumbbell has been given a two-year community order. Neither the report I heard just now on the radio news bulletin in The World at One nor the longer version on the BBC website mentions a crucial fact.

It is that Peter Harvey has already served the equivalent of an 18-month prison sentence. I would not have known this if the Judicial Communications Office had not circulated the sentencing remarks of Judge Michael Stokes QC, Recorder of Nottingham. 

Since these remarks are not yet on the judicial website, I set them out in full below. I have highlighted the relevant passages.

On any view this is a tragic case. You are a thoroughly decent man and for well over twenty years you have been a dedicated and successful schoolteacher.  That is clear from the huge support you have received from students and colleagues, past and present. The incident involving the 14 year old boy whom you assaulted was brought about, I have no doubt, by a number of factors combining together and producing in you a quite disproportionate reaction to misbehaviour, abuse and rank disobedience by him and some of his classmates. In previous years you would have handled this easily and professionally.  But in July of last year you were far from well. You were undoubtedly suffering from depression, stress and a serious lack of confidence.  Your personal life added to those pressures, your wife suffering from a long term depressive illness and one of your children having difficulties of her own.

I have no doubt that the sudden explosion of anger that preceded your assault on this boy could not have been predicted by anyone.  Not by the school authorities, not by your pupils, not by you, although you were, perhaps, better placed than others to understand that all was not well with you. You had taken several months off because you had felt capable of such actions which itself shows a professional and responsible attitude on your part. You received medical and professional help and considered yourself fit to return to work. Very sensibly, the school ensured your return was phased and on the very day of this incident an assessment was to be made of you by your head of department.

On the jury’s verdicts, when you assaulted this boy in the prep room into which both of you had stumbled as you took him out of the classroom, you did not intend to cause him serious harm. But serious harm was caused to him, which you have always accepted was your responsibility. It is the measure of the man you really are that having been charged with grave offences against this boy, you recognised from the outset that you were at fault and did not apply for bail until a few days before your trial was due to start.  You spent over eight months in custody, the equivalent these days of a sentence of at least 18 months’ imprisonment.

In such circumstances it is not necessary for the court to impose any further period of custody upon you.  The pre-sentence report confirms that you have taken and continue to take a very responsible attitude and recognise that you will continue to need assistance including follow up psychiatric treatment. You also accept that you will never be able to return to teaching children of any age.

The sentence of the court on count three on the indictment, which you admitted many months ago, is a Community Order for two years with a supervision requirement for the whole of that period.  That order is designed to assist you and provide a necessary degree of supervision, thereby ensuring that appropriate treatment takes place.  It is not necessary for me to impose a Mental Health Treatment requirement under the Criminal Justice Act.

Given the publicity this case has received, there are a few other words I would add.

First,  no-one who has the charge of children whether as a teacher or in some other capacity should assume from the sentence passed in this case that this was not a serious offence.  It was.   In ordinary circumstances, anyone treating a child in this way, whatever the provocation, should expect to receive an immediate custodial sentence. But the circumstances of this case were truly exceptional and the defendant has served a quite lengthy period in custody in any event.

Secondly, the Crown acted perfectly properly in bringing this case to trial.  As I said after verdict, where a child has been injured in such circumstances it is right that a jury should determine the level of the defendant’s intent. It should be remembered that the comments I made during submissions by the defence that I should withdraw the charge of attempted murder from the jury, related only to that charge because Mr Tedd’s submissions related only to that charge and I did not, in the event, act on his submissions. The charge of attempted murder was considered by the jury. The defence submission was unsuccessful.  Robust discussions between judge and leading counsel at that stage of the trial is an ordinary and necessary incident of criminal litigation in this country. As events demonstrated, it might have been wiser for the Crown not to continue to pursue the charge of attempted murder given the evidence at the close of its case, but that was a decision for the Crown not for me.

Thirdly, the children in this case do not deserve some of the comments that I have seen reported.  Their behaviour in Mr Harvey’s class that day was, in some cases, wholly unacceptable.  Some were worse than others but the fact remains that the common sense verdict, as it has been described, returned by the jury was in large part due to the fact that they, for the most part, told the truth and readily acknowledged that their behaviour was the trigger for the defendant’s outburst.  A school which produces children of this age who come to the Crown Court, a quite awesome requirement in itself, ready and willing to tell the truth, even when the truth reflects adversely on them, must be doing something right!

I end as I began. This was a tragic case where a young boy, no worse and no better that many boys of his age, was badly hurt in circumstances which no-one could possibly have predicted.  Happily, he has recovered with no serious permanent disability.   No-one should rush to judgment and seek to apportion blame beyond that implicit in the verdict of the jury. In particular, the pupils and staff of the school should be left to deal with the consequences which will undoubtedly have made an impact on their school community.  For myself, I have no doubt they are well able to do so.

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