As a primary school discovered to its cost in an unusual High Court case, firing off letters or other communications without first considering the data protection and human rights implications can have grave financial and reputational consequences.
The case concerned a 10-year-old girl with Down’s syndrome whose behaviour was said to have been challenging during her first few weeks at the school. According to the school, she had a tendency to bite and kick members of staff and, on one occasion, scared younger pupils by behaving so aggressively that a barrier of chairs had to be erected around her. She said sorry after calming down.
After parents of other pupils expressed concern, the school sent a letter to every parent in the girl’s year group – about 60 individuals. It described her as a lovely little girl who brought many positives to the school. However, it mentioned her by name, identified the nature of her disability and stated that she had behavioural issues that could be seen as disturbing and had led to safety concerns.
The girl’s mother was deeply distressed about the impact that the letter might have on her daughter’s education and reputation and took the view that it amounted to discriminatory profiling. After she took action, the First-tier Tribunal ruled that the sending of the letter – and the eventual withdrawal of the girl’s place at the school – were acts of disability discrimination.
After the mother launched further proceedings, the Court found on the evidence that she had not consented to the sending of the letter. Its circulation to other parents was discriminatory and breached the Data Protection Act 1998. It also violated both mother’s and daughter’s human right to respect for their home and family lives and amounted to a misuse of their personal information.
The Court rejected the mother’s claim that the school was never fully committed to supporting her daughter and had engaged in a campaign to have her removed. The evidence established that she was loved by both staff and pupils and that every effort had been made to settle her and understand her needs. The school was nevertheless ordered to pay £1,500 in damages to the girl and £3,000 to her mother.