A teacher and a school principal have appeared before a fitness-to-teach inquiry over the alleged inappropriate removal of headphones from a nine-year-old boy with autism and how the school handled a complaint about the incident in his class.

The teacher is accused of professional misconduct for allegedly removing ear defenders from the pupil, who was acutely sensitive to noise, without any warning on 5 February 2019, as well as shouting at him.

The boy's mother told the inquiry that he wears the ear defenders 24-hours a day because he cannot bear any type of noise.

The teacher also faces two other allegations of professional misconduct over another incident three weeks later in which it is claimed he tried to pull the boy off the floor by his arm in an inappropriate manner.

He was also accused of failing to include sufficient information in the pupil’s journal that the boy had hit his head off a mirror just before falling on the floor and failing to phone his parents about what had happened.

The school’s principal is separately facing an allegation of poor professional performance over claims that he took 19 weeks to inform the boy’s parents about the incident on 5 Feb 2019, despite having received a complaint about the teacher from a special needs assistant a few days later.

Both men are contesting all the allegations.

None of the parties or the school can be identified on direction of the inquiry’s chairperson, Seán O’Neill.

Counsel for the Teaching Council, Eoghan O’Sullivan BL, said the alleged conduct of both the teacher and the principal also represented breaches of the Code of Professional Conduct for Teachers.

The inquiry heard that the pupil had limited verbal skills and was attending a special needs class within a large mainstream primary school.

A special needs assistant (SNA) gave evidence that she was in the class on 5 Feb 2019 when the boy had a meltdown while making a jigsaw.

She claimed the teacher became frustrated and removed the pupil’s ear defenders without warning after the boy repeatedly broke up the jigsaw.

The SNA said the teacher, who had a loud voice, also shouted at the boy in an aggressive tone: "Hurry up, if you want to get your lunch."

According to her evidence, he later remarked: "Now we know if he takes his ear defenders off, he’ll do his work."

SNA in 'total shock'

The SNA, who reported the incident to the school’s deputy principal two days later, told the inquiry that she wished she had responded to the teacher at the time but had been in "total shock".

She said she broke down and cried later that day when she told another staff member about what had happened.

Mr O’Sullivan said the principal believed his investigation had to be confidential which explained his decision not to notify the boy’s parents about the SNA’s complaint about the teacher.

However, Mr O’Sullivan said the Teaching Council would argue that he had incorrectly interpreted a circular as it was "absurd" that it would prevent parents being notified of a serious allegation.

The inquiry heard that the principal maintained he had acted "in a wholly professional, fair and appropriate manner" in dealing with the complaint.

He said his decision to maintain absolute confidentiality was made in good faith, although he accepted in hindsight that he should have informed the parents at the time about what had happened.

Mr O’Sullivan said the principal was unable to definitively establish what happened on the day, as the teacher had denied the SNA’s allegation and no other staff had witnessed the incident.

However, he said it "jumped out of the pages" that the principal had not spoken to the SNA which he observed was "a very striking deficit in the procedure that was followed".

"It’s Hamlet without the prince," Mr O’Sullivan remarked.

He also claimed it was "extraordinary" that the school’s board of management had also not interviewed the SNA, before dismissing a complaint against the principal and teacher, made by the boy’s parents.

The inquiry heard complaints about the two men were also made to Tusla, the Children’s Ombudsman and the Data Protection Commission.

In evidence, the SNA also described the second incident on 26 February 2019 when she outlined how the boy had hit his head hard off a mirror a number of times as he was upset.

She claimed the teacher had "quite forcibly" tried to pull the pupil off the ground when he fell down.

The SNA explained that she had not reported this incident to the school until June 2019.

'I would cry in my car before going into work'

The woman said her relationship with the teacher after making the first complaint was "horrible" and "quite toxic" and she felt excluded from conversations in the class.

"I would cry in my car before going into work," she recalled.

The SNA explained she resigned from her job the following year as her complaints had been "totally disregarded" by the school’s management who had also been "very hostile" and unsupportive.

Under cross-examination by counsel for the two teachers, Helen Callanan SC, the SNA said her delay in reporting the second incident was because she had no faith in the school management after its handling of the initial incident.

Ms Callanan pointed out that the SNA had opportunities to raise the matter before the disciplinary process over the first complaint was concluded in May 2019.

She claimed the teacher completely disagreed with the SNA’s description of both incidents and such events "simply didn’t happen".

She outlined how she would not have been able to keep calm, when he remarked to the boy’s mother that she would have to "lower her expectations" about his reading and writing skills, at a meeting held a few hours after the ear defenders incident.

Asked why she had not raised what happened at this meeting, the SNA said she did not think it was appropriate and she was "in utter shock".

"It was a very traumatic thing to see," she added.

The SNA said it was "absolutely ludicrous" for the teacher to suggest the incident of pulling the boy’s arm had not happened.

"I’ve nothing to gain from making it up," she remarked.

Mr O’Sullivan said the dispute between the evidence of the teacher and the SNA would be a central issue for the inquiry.

The hearing was adjourned to a date to be fixed next month.