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PE teacher sacked and banned for ‘darling’ ‘you love me’ emails to students

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A 28-year-old PE teacher at a Cambridgeshire school has been banned from teaching for at least five years after he admitted sending thousands of inappropriate messages to students.

Courtney Pettifor was head of PE at Witchford Village College near Ely from January 2018 to March 2021when he was sacked.

Red flags over the former Ely College student were raised as early as 2019, a disciplinary tribunal of the Teaching Regulation Agency (TRA) was told.

But it was during lockdown that Pettifor flourished in his contact with students.

A recommendation to disqualify Pettifor from teaching for at least five years has been confirmed by the Secretary of State for Education.

Evidence against Pettifor was heard during the tribunal hearing on December 14, 2022.

A recommendation to disqualify Courtney Pettifor from teaching for at least five years has been confirmed by the Secretary of State for Education.

The tribunal was told that he sent thousands of emails to students between approximately January 2020 to January 2021.

These included:

Messages sent late at night and/or during holidays and/or weekends and/or during national lockdowns

Messages that were “were inappropriate in tone”.

Messages that used “x” to denote kisses,

Messages that included him ‘sending hugs’ or words to that effect.

Messages that included emojis including hearts and/or winking faces

Messages that used one or more nicknames.

Messages that stated “you love me” or words to that effect.

Messages that stated “you mean more to me than you realise” or words to that effect.

Messages that used terms of endearment including but not limited to i. babe; ii. sweetheart; iii. darling; iv. my lovely; v. special girl.

Messages that included requests to one or more pupils inviting them to send an image of themselves to him.

Messages that commented on one or more pupils’ physical appearance, including but not limited to: i. stating that they could be a model; ii. stating that they were stunning; iii. referring to their figure; iv. asking about their tan lines.

Messages that stated ‘I’ll run past your window every day up until Sunday from now, just for you x’” or words to that effect, with reference to passing her home address.

Messages that requested that one or more pupils contact him using his personal contact details once they left the school.

Messages that offered free tutoring to one or more pupils.

Messages that offered to chat to one or more pupils using Zoom.

Messages that alerted and/or encouraged one or more pupils towards his use of TikTok.

Messages that provided his home address.

At one stage of his time at the school, Pettifor was spoken to and advised to spend less time with KS4 girls during social time as well as being advised how to safeguard himself during 1:1 meetings.

In the spring term of 2020, the same colleague was “directed to speak to Mr Pettifor due to his closeness with some Year 11 female pupils and his frequency of being around them”.

Pettifor’s behaviour was monitored and that autumn he was again “reminded to keep his distance from Year 11 pupils during social time”.

During the autumn term of 2020, a formal investigation was carried out.

A recommendation to disqualify Courtney Pettifor from teaching for at least five years has been confirmed by the Secretary of State for Education.

During the investigation, it transpired that a parent of one of the students called Pettifor during the first lockdown between March to June 2020 and made him aware “that she was unhappy with the tone and lack of formality of his emails with her daughter”.

In December 2020, Pettiford was again spoken to “informally following concerns that were raised by a member of staff about his interactions with certain Year 11 students”.

On 13 January 2021, a pupil contacted someone within the school identified only as “individual C” with screenshots of emails that Pettifor had sent to a student, who had since left the school, when she was in Year 11.

“The emails showed Mr Pettifor sending kisses to Pupil B and writing in a manner which was very informal,” says the tribunal report.

On 14 January 2021, an investigation got under way at the school.

Access was approved to Pettifor’s emails to students who would have been in KS4 from January 2020 to January 2021.

“The school found thousands of emails to various pupils,” says the report.

A disciplinary meeting on 23 March 2021 concluded that gross misconduct had taken place and “Mr Pettifor was subsequently dismissed”.

The tribunal reports that Pettifor admitted that he failed to maintain appropriate boundaries with one or more pupils in emails he sent to them between January 2020 and January 2021.

Courtney Pettifor once took on the Three Peaks Challenge in aid of local charity Branching Out

“It was Mr Pettifor’s position that, due to him being a young teacher, students would choose to confide in him with their problems,” says the report.

“Mr Pettifor stated that he was approached every break time and lunchtime and would try to assist all students as much as he could.

“Mr Pettifor stated that he became overwhelmed with emails and understood that he became unprofessional, and boundaries were crossed.

“Mr Pettifor admitted that he sent emails to pupils between January 2020 and January 2021 which were ‘thousands in number.”

It was Mr Pettifor’s position that he became terrified that if he did not respond to emails from pupils then “something awful could happen”.

“Mr Pettifor submitted that this accounts for the numerous emails at all times of the day,” says the tribunal.

“Mr Pettifor admitted that boundaries were crossed in terms of language within his emails.”

The panel was provided with a large number of emails between Mr Pettifor and pupils in year 11, many of which had been sent late at 11 night or during holidays and weekends.

The panel was provided with emails “and considered that these were inappropriate in tone due to their informal, overfriendly and intimate nature”.

One witness said that during the review of Mr Pettifor’s emails, the school found that Mr Pettifor had not been logging key safeguarding concerns.

“These concerns were in relation to the close relationships Mr Pettifor had with five key students and the school found no record about the relationship or concerns,” says the tribunal.

By not logging a number of safeguarding concerns, the tribunal “considered that this conduct showed a total lack of appreciation for due process and safeguarding procedures.

“This could have led to a heightened risk of harm of any one of those pupils”.

In one part of their 7,500-word findings, the tribunal says that of particular concern “was the severely detrimental impact Mr Pettifor’s behaviour could have on the vulnerable pupils going forward.

“The panel felt that Mr Pettifor had not appreciated how impressionable these pupils were.

“He had acted naively and inappropriately in forming inappropriate relationships with pupils with insufficient regard for the need to safeguard pupils.

“The panel therefore found that Mr Pettifor’s actions constituted conduct that may bring the profession into disrepute.”

John Knowles, head of the teacher qualification unit within the department of education, said all of the allegations apart from one made against Pettifor had been proven.

The teacher’s actions “amount to unacceptable professional conduct and conduct that may bring the profession into disrepute,” said Mr Knowles.

Pettifor, he said, had breached public trust in the profession.

He had failed to maintain high standards of ethics and behaviour, within and outside school.

Pettifor had also failed to observe “proper boundaries appropriate to a teacher’s professional position” with his students.

He said the panel who had conducted the disciplinary hearing was “satisfied that the conduct of Mr Pettifor fell significantly short of the standards expected of the profession.

“The findings of misconduct are particularly serious as they include findings of inappropriate communication with pupils and being dishonest/lacking integrity.

“The panel described the misconduct as, ‘sustained and multiple failings to safeguard pupils’”.

Mr Knowles said it had been his role to determine whether a prohibition order was appropriate as opposed to publishing findings of unacceptable professional conduct.

“I have considered therefore whether or not prohibiting Mr Petiffor, and the impact that will have on the teacher, is proportionate and in the public interest,” he said.

“In this case, I have considered the extent to which a prohibition order would protect children/safeguard pupils.

“The panel has observed that of particular concern was the severely detrimental impact Mr Pettifor’s behaviour could have on the vulnerable pupils going forward.

“The panel felt that Mr Pettifor had not appreciated how impressionable these pupils were and had acted naively and inappropriately in forming inappropriate relationships with pupils with insufficient regard for the need to safeguard pupils.

“A prohibition order would therefore prevent such a risk from being present in the future.”

Mr Knowles said: “I have also taken into account the panel’s comments on insight and remorse, which the panel describe as, Mr Petiffor having a ‘total lack of insight and no evidence of remorse for his actions or the impact they had on the vulnerable young people.

“In my judgement, the lack of insight means that there is some risk of the repetition of this behaviour, and this puts at risk the future wellbeing of pupils.

“I have therefore given this element considerable weight in reaching my decision.

“I have gone on to consider the extent to which a prohibition order would maintain public confidence in the profession.”

He said the panel had observed that “the conduct displayed would inevitably have a negative impact on the individual’s status as a teacher, potentially damaging the public perception.”

Mr Knowles said: “I am particularly mindful of the finding of dishonesty/lack of integrity in this case and the impact that such a finding has on the reputation of the profession.

“I have had to consider that the public has a high expectation of professional standards of all teachers and that the public might regard a failure to impose a prohibition order as a failure to uphold those high standards.

“In weighing these considerations, I have had to consider the matter from the point of view of an ‘ordinary intelligent and well-informed citizen.’

“I have considered whether the publication of a finding of unacceptable professional conduct, in the absence of a prohibition order, can itself be regarded by such a person as being a proportionate response to the misconduct that has been found proven in this case.

“I have also considered the impact of a prohibition order on Mr Pettifor himself, he has subsequently secured work outside of teaching and the panel comment ‘no evidence was submitted to attest to Mr Pettifor’s previous history or ability as a teacher’”

Mr Knowles said a prohibition order would prevent Mr Pettifor from teaching and would clearly deprive the public of his contribution to the profession for the period that it is in force.

But he had given that less weight and “in my view, it is necessary to impose a prohibition order in order to maintain public confidence in the profession.

“A published decision, in light of the circumstances in this case, that is not backed up by remorse or insight, does not in my view satisfy the public interest requirement concerning public confidence in the profession.

“For these reasons, I have concluded that a prohibition order is proportionate and in the public interest in order to achieve the intended aims of a prohibition order.”

Mr Knowles also reflected on the five-year review period once the banning order was imposed.

“I have considered the panel’s comments that their primary concern was that Mr Pettifor had over a prolonged period, consistently breached guidelines and policies which were intended to safeguard pupils, despite several warnings from senior leadership within the school.

“The panel was concerned that this behaviour appeared to be deeply entrenched within Mr Pettifor, such that he did not appear to appreciate why his conduct was inappropriate and the effect his conduct may have on young and vulnerable individuals.

“The panel considered that significant further insight into his actions is required before Mr Pettifor could be considered suitable to return to teaching.”

Mr Knowles said he had concluded that allowing a five-year review period is sufficient to achieve the aim of maintaining public confidence in the profession.

“These elements are the dishonesty/lack of integrity found, the lack of either insight or remorse, and that the conduct found proven had taken place over a prolonged period and consistently breached guidelines and policies which were intended to safeguard pupils,” he said.

“I consider therefore that a five year review period is required to satisfy the maintenance of public confidence in the profession.

“This means that Mr Courtney Pettifor is prohibited from teaching indefinitely and cannot teach in any school, sixth form college, relevant youth accommodation or children’s home in England.

“He may apply for the prohibition order to be set aside, but not until 28 December 2027, five years from the date of this order at the earliest.

“This is not an automatic right to have the prohibition order removed. If he does apply, a panel will meet to consider whether the prohibition order should be set aside.

“Without a successful application, Mr Pettifor remains prohibited from teaching indefinitely.”

A statement from the Eastern Learning Alliance, Witchford Village College’s multi-academy trust, said: “The Teaching Regulation Agency have published a judgement on a former employee.

“The Eastern Learning Alliance always prioritise the safeguarding of young people in our schools.

“The report recognises the appropriate actions taken by the school and Trust at all times.

“We will not be commenting further on this matter.”

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