Richards’ inquest jury makes 16 recommendations

Jury urges better internal policies for suspended employees

By NUNATSIAQ NEWS

KIRSTEN MURPHY

Why Nakasuk School principal Hal Richards, 52, ended his life with a .308 Winchester rifle on June 8 or 9, 2001, while suspended with pay from his job may never be known.

What is known, after a three-day inquest in Iqaluit last week, is that 16 recommendations made by a six-person jury may prevent a similar tragedy from occurring.

The recommendations were handed to corner Percy Kinney on Sept. 19. They include suggestions for updating the department of education’s standard suspension letter to include the anticipated length of an employee’s suspension, and support names and numbers.

Richards was suspended with pay on May 29 after the mother of a Nakasuk student made a statement alleging an incident of abuse between her daughter and Richards.

The day before that, Qikiqtani School Operations (QSO) contacted the RCMP, which launched a criminal investigation.

Supervisors didn’t tell Richards how long he’d be off work — even though the Education Act limits such suspensions to 30 days, with the possibility of a 30-day extension. Steve Prest, then the superintendent of schools for QSO, did not return a phone message that Richards had left.

Charles Banfield, the QSO’s executive director and Prest’s immediate superior, had asked Prest not to return the call.

RCMP officer Cory Bushell instructed Prest not to conduct a departmental investigation until the police had done their criminal investigation.

“He [Richard] was in a situation where he was in the dark,” said Barrie Chivers, the lawyer representing the Federation of Nunavut Teachers, while examining Banfield during the inquest.

Most of the 16 recommendations are aimed at clarifying the roles and responsibilities of the government and other parties when an employee is suspended.

Other recommendations include listing alternative work arrangements for suspended teachers in small communities and creating an administrative team to ensure that suspended teachers or principals are aware of their rights.

The RCMP investigation ended with Richards’ death.

The department of education was re-writing its standard employee suspension letter and looking at policy changes before the inquest, Banfield said.

No one from the education department attended the three-day inquest, other than to testify as witnesses. However, Education Minister Peter Kilabuk issued a press release about the inquest on Sept. 20.

“The safety and protection of students and staff must be foremost in our minds…. This inquest was an important step in determining how best to provide that safety and protection,” Kilabuk is quoted as saying.

Bill Ford, Elizabeth Richards’ cousin, spoke on behalf of Richards’ family. Ford expressed hope for improved policies to protect educators.

“It’s been a horrible week, we’ve been forced to relive [Hal’s] death all over again,” Ford said.

The jury’s recommendations are only suggestions. The government is not legally obligated to enforce them.

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