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Embattled Siparia West Secondary School principal Sookoo Sonnylal is threatening to sue the Ministry of Education over a decision to relieve him of duties while investigating a verbal altercation he is alleged to have had with a group of students earlier this month.
In a five page pre-action protocol letter sent to Education Minister Anthony Garcia yesterday, Soonylal’s attorneys, Anand Ramlogan, SC and Douglas Bayley, said the ministry acted outside its remit when it replaced him with a school supervisor after a video of the incident was circulated on social media.
“We are constrained to point out that neither the Minister nor the Chief Education Officer has any jurisdiction or power whatsoever in relation to the transfer, promotion and disciplining of teachers, including the principal. This power falls under the sole remit of the Teaching Service Commission (TSC),” the lawyers said.
They contend the ministry breached Sonnylal’s due process rights, as he was not given an opportunity to be heard on the issue before being instructed to report to the St Patrick District Education Office in San Fernando.
Soonylal’s lawyers threatened to file a judicial review lawsuit if their client is not reinstated by 4 pm today.
Speaking with the T&T Guardian on October 11, Garcia admitted that the TSC had the sole purview to discipline teachers and principals, but denied that the instructions given to Sonnylal constituted disciplinary action.
The T&T Guardian attempted to contact Garcia for a response yesterday evening, but he responded by text message to say he could not answer and would return the call. He did not do so up to late yesterday.
According to the letter, the incident occurred around 12.30 pm on October 4 while Sonnylal was on patrol during the school’s lunch break. His lawyers claimed the video only depicted a portion of the events, as it was recorded by students in a deliberate ploy to embarrass him.
“At the time, a student was secretly recording the incident. However, conveniently, the student omitted to record those portions when the students insulted our client. It is quite clear that these students premeditated this incident in order to ‘trap’ and implicate our client,” the lawyers said as they related their client’s version of the events.
Sonnylal’s lawyers claimed he was informed by other students that a group of students were smoking and gambling in a classroom. While on the way to the area, Soonylal confronted and spoke to one student, who was armed with a piece of metal in the stairwell. He then went to the classroom where he allegedly saw a student with his feet on a chair and he asked him to sit properly as it was a “learning institution.”
Describing Sonnylal as the real victim, his lawyers claimed he was then mobbed by a dozen of the student’s classmates, who began using obscene and threatening language towards him.
Saying Sonnylal, who has been at the school for the past 25 years, felt afraid and helpless, they said he attempted to call the Siparia Community Police four times but got no response.
“In light of the circumstances, namely the hostility shown by the students, the fact that our client was outnumbered and that the students were aggressive, our client reacted as most adult human beings would and uttered two phrases which are at most, debatably injudicious and unfortunate. The extenuating circumstances are clear and outweigh the human foible,” they said.
They also contend that the ministry’s response will undermine the efforts of other educators attempting to tackle school indiscipline and violence and embolden future perpetrators.
“By taking the side of violent indisciplined students who are not afraid to taunt, provoke and attack educators whose efforts are rewarded with an unexplained removal from office, the ministry will send the wrong signal,” they said.
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