Teacher accused of putting plastic bag over Hong Kong pupil's head to sue kindergarten for libel
School says fired employee put bag over boy's head and spread photographs of the incident
Jennifer Ngo and Bryan Harris
A photograph apparently showing a kindergarten pupil with a bag over his head is set to spark a legal battle between the school and the former teacher accused of the act.
Brian Smith, who was fired by the Zenith Kindergarten in Yuen Long in July, says he plans to sue the school for libel after it published a statement in several Chinese-language newspapers yesterday accusing him of putting a plastic bag over the boy's head, taking pictures and sending them anonymously to members of its teaching staff.
Smith is already taking the school to a labour tribunal over his dismissal, which was not related to the plastic bag incident.
"I will talk to my lawyer later tonight and very probably we will push ahead with the legal option because they have made very serious charges and lies against me," Smith said yesterday.
He denies any wrongdoing, claiming the bag was made of fabric and was over the back of the boy's head, not his face. He said he had explained the situation to police, who told him they considered the matter closed.
"The children don't have a lot of toys to play with, so they take other things. One boy found a bag and decided to turn it into a hat … so he rolled it up a bit and put it on his head," Smith said.
"I took two or three photos. We take lots of photos in class. … Most of them are for official use and for the parents. They're not meant to be taken off the [classroom] computer."
Smith, a Briton who first came to Hong Kong in 1994 and now works for another school in Yuen Long, denies the bag was used to punish the child.
He was fired in July and will claim unfair dismissal at a labour tribunal later this month. He said the sacking was for "applying to take a long holiday" and refusing to work on Saturdays after agreeing with the school that he would not have to do so.
The school says he was dismissed for not taking part in extracurricular activities, and gives a different account of the plastic bag incident.
Headmistress Tina Tse Yee-mei said a teacher received an anonymous e-mail on October 18 with a photo of the boy in the school's uniform attached. The kindergarten immediately told police. In subsequent days, more teachers received the photo, Tse said. They gave detailed statements to police last week.
Tse said she suspected Smith was responsible as the Chinese writing in the e-mail made no sense, but would be consistent with a translation from English using Google Translate.
"We've always taught our children never to put plastic bags or any bags over their heads. We can't have a teacher condone that and then take a photo of it," she said.
She said the photo was clearly taken in a particular classroom and featured decorations that were up last year, when Smith was using the room.
"We later talked to students, who confirmed that the teacher had put the bag over [the boy's] head. It wasn't part of the game," Tse added.
But Tse said Smith and the school "did not part under bad circumstances".
"He was only willing to go to class and not willing to participate in other activities," she said. "It seems like we could no longer work together."
The Zenith Kindergarten chain will install CCTV cameras in classrooms and activity areas to prevent similar cases, she said.
Police confirmed they were contacted about the bag incident on October 18 and were investigating, though no arrests had been made. An Education Bureau spokeswoman said the case was under police investigation. The bureau would offer support to the school if needed, she said.
A spokeswoman for the Labour Department said it could not comment as labour disputes were confidential matters.