Emil Ford Lawyers

A Principal's abhorrent behaviour and a Board's disgraceful conduct

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Sarah* was a student of an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish School.  Between 2003 and 2006, she was sexually abused by the female School principal.  Sarah came from an unhappy home life.  She was regularly subjected to physical and emotional abuse.  When the principal began to show an interest in Sarah, it made the young vulnerable student feel special.  The principal would take Sarah out of class and even organised for her to attend lessons at the principal’s home in Jewish values and morals. However, the principal used these regular meetings and opportunities to perpetrate acts of sexual abuse and exploitation.  

Sarah claimed damages from the School in the Supreme Court of Victoria because of what the principal did to her. The Court noted that the principal had such a position of seniority within the School that she was essentially 'the mind and will' and 'the embodiment' of the School. Because this power and control had been afforded to her by the School and its Board, and because it allowed her to engage in appalling misconduct against Sarah and a number of other students, the Court said that the principal’s misconduct was the misconduct of the School. The School was held to be directly liable for damages arising from Sarah’s damage caused by the principal’s criminal conduct.

The Court also said that the School was vicariously liable for the gross misconduct of the principal. This was because the principal had unique authority in the teaching of the girls in their religious beliefs, lifestyle and everyday behaviour. This 'unique authority' allowed the principal to develop relationships with students like Sarah.  This power and intimacy gave the principal the opportunity to commit the sexual abuse.  The connection between these sexual assaults and the principal’s employment justified treating the contact as 'in the course of employment' and so the School was also vicariously liable.

The School Board had become aware of at least eight other people who made similar allegations about the principal.  In response, members of the Board and their families urgently arranged for the principal’s departure from Australia to Israel (even paying for her airline tickets!) without notifying or advising the police.  The Court described this as 'a disdain for due process of criminal investigation' that warranted the awarding of punitive damages.

Therefore, the Court awarded Sarah exemplary damages. This was not an award to compensate her for the harm she suffered. It was an award designed to punish the School for acting in a way that involved a deliberate, intentional and reckless disregard of Sarah’s rights.

In total, the School was liable to pay Sarah $1,024,428 in damages and $100,000 in exemplary damages.

Schools should note some of the factors that led to this decision. Essentially, the principal 'controlled the School and was in charge of everything'.  The School had no mechanisms or protocols in place requiring the principal to report on her duties to the Board. Her conduct with students was not questioned and there were also no mechanisms within the School which allowed teachers to raise concerns about the conduct of another teacher.

Schools must ensure that they have appropriate policies and procedures in place to avoid making the costly mistakes that School did. For more information about how Emil Ford Lawyers can help your school with policy drafting, review, or enforcement, please contact .

* Not her real name

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Suite 4 Level 5
580 George Street
Sydney NSW 2000
Phone: +61 2 9267 9800
Fax: +61 2 9283 2553