New questions for Benson-Pope

By David Fisher

Cabinet Minister David Benson Pope was last night under fresh political scrutiny after new complaints were made by former female pupils.

Four former pupils gave statements to the Herald on Sunday about incidents on a South Island school camp in 1997 which they said they were upset about.

The incidents included Mr Benson Pope, then a teacher at Bayfield High School in Dunedin, entering the female dormitories and showers without warning, while 14-year-old girls were undressed.

There was also claims from one student she was struck with a ruler and from another that Mr Benson Pope threw dusters, hitting some students, to get their attention.

Three of the former students offered their names to endorse their statements - they are Rachel Davie of Wanaka, Jennifer Ottley of Dunedin and Jo Woods of Dunedin. The fourth student, who said she was struck with a ruler, wanted to remain anonymous but said she would be willing to come forward and testify if any legal action was taken.

The women have not spoken to each other about the matters since school days. The students were contacted by the Herald on Sunday after Investigate magazine published anonymous allegations on its website yesterday. Attempts to check the truth of the allegations resulted in the young women speaking out.

In at least one of the cases, formal complaints were made to the school. In parliament last year, Mr Benson Pope said: "... I have not been guilty of, or involved in, any inappropriate behaviour in my 24 years as a secondary school teacher. As well, I am not aware of any complaint of any kind."

Mr Benson Pope, who is Minister of Social Development and Employment, refused to be interviewed last night. Instead, he released a statement saying the allegations were "nonsense".

"Overwhelming support from students, staff and parents confirm my proud record as a teacher. If anyone does have a genuine concern I invite them to raise it with the appropriate authority immediately.

"With regard to these allegations I will be considering what legal avenues are open to me."

Prime Minister Helen Clark said: "The police have exhaustively investigated allegations around Mr Benson Pope and found no reason to pursue the matter. That's where the matter ends. If people have concerns that warrant police investigation they should take the matter to the police now."

Opposition politicians behind the initial "tennis ball inquiry" - in which police found a prima facie case of assault against Mr Benson Pope but said they would not prosecute - called for Mr Benson Pope to be dumped from Cabinet.

Jennifer Ottley said Mr Benson Pope came into the girls' dormitory without knocking early in the morning when the girls were getting dressed.

"He came in in the morning to wake us up. Most of us were awake. He just walked in. Most of us were at least partially unclothed as we were getting dressed in the morning."

She said no other male teachers came into the female dormitories. "There was no reason for him to come in at all because it was generally female teachers that came in to the girls' dorms and male teachers into the boys' dorms. We were all pretty shocked.

"Complaints were made to the principal and he chose to do nothing about it. My parents talked to the principal about it and he said 'we'll deal with it in our way' and nothing happened."

Mrs Ottley said there was another occasion when he came into the female bathroom area following a "mud run", an outdoor activity after which students needed to shower.

She and another student, Rachel Davie, were in neighbouring shower cubicles when Mr Benson Pope came in, she said.

"He walked into the girls' toilets and told us to get out of the shower because we had been in too long. He just ordered us out of the shower right then. We said 'no, you get out of here and we'll get out of the shower'. He did leave.

"It's another reason I complained to my parents."

She said there were two showers in the girls' toilets and they had doors. "He didn't see anything but we thought it was a bit strange. He told us to get out then and he wasn't too keen to leave the toilet until we had gotten out of the shower. I refused that and he did leave. We got out."

She said he was in the toilet/shower area for what seemed like a long time.

Mrs Ottley said Mr Benson Pope was a "good teacher" in the classroom but she was concerned about the incidents at camp. She believed Mr Benson Pope was reprimanded. She said he had explained entering the dormitory by saying he walked into his own children's bedrooms.

"It's a little different between your own children and a bunch of 14-year-old kids. Especially at that age. I was pretty pissed off about it."

Ms Davie said she was disturbed about two incidents at the camp.

Ms Davie said she recalled Mr Benson Pope walking into the dormitories without knocking. "There was no sorry, nothing else. All he said was 'I have kids of my own at home'.

"Even our female teachers had the respect to ask us. His kids were five or six, which is a bit different from teenagers getting changed, and they're his kids. He's like, 'I've got girl kids at home, it doesn't matter'.

"I was only in my underwear. Some people probably weren't even in that."

Ms Davie said the dormitory incident occurred after students came back from the "mud run".

"Even our female teachers knocked and waited until we said yes or no. We were grabbing for our clothes. Shocked and a bit disgusted really."

Ms Davie said she believed Mr Benson Pope was in the room for what seemed like several minutes. There were about 15 girls in the dormitory room, all aged about 14, getting changed.

She said her mother was one of the parents who complained over the incident. Her mother, Jill Allan of Fairlie, said last night the shower incident was raised with the school in a meeting with then principal Bruce Leadbetter.

The shower room incident was brought up, she said, as part of a number of concerns over her daughter's education. She said she was angry because there was no need for Mr Benson Pope to be in the girls' toilet area. "There were female (teachers) out there to hurry up the girls."

She said she pulled her daughter from the school the next term, partly because she was unhappy with the lack of action over the complaint.

Jo Woods, of Dunedin, was also at the camp in 1997. She also said Mr Benson Pope came into the girls' dormitories on two occasions.

"He came into the dorm rooms without knocking and said 'you've got five minutes to get dressed' and half the chicks would still be trying to get dressed."

She said female students would shout at Mr Benson Pope to get out and he did so after being asked.

"We were only like, 14, some of us 15, we had probably just hit the puberty stage as well."

The student said the presence of the male teacher in the room left her feeling "nervous" and "yuck".

Ms Woods said female teachers were told about the incidents and the girls were assured he would be spoken to.

She also recalled Mr Benson Pope making students stand outside at night in their nightwear for talking after the dormitory lights were turned out.

Another former student, now 24, of Christchurch, would not be named. She said he had come into both the dormitories and the shower area. "He knew we were in there and he did it on purpose, thinking it was okay for him to be in there."

She said her parents had made a formal complaint to Bayfield High School. She was present at one meeting with her parents and Mr Leadbetter and believed her parents had attended a second meeting.

Her parents were told the matter would be referred to the board of trustees. "Nothing happened."

Rachel Davie said Mr Benson Pope also threw dusters in class. "If we didn't listen in class he wouldn't just yell at us, he would throw dusters at us, aim them at us."

The student who would not be named also said she was struck by him with a ruler in a German class after she failed to count to 10 in the language. The ruler left a red mark on her thigh. 

'Where were the women teachers?'

Diane O'Sullivan, chair of the New Zealand Parent Teachers Association, said a male teacher in girls' dormitories was inappropriate.

"It's just inappropriate. I mean, especially for 14, they're overly modest at the best of times. Where were the women teachers?"

She said there was no excuse other than to help a child who was suffering a mortal injury.

"While they're getting changed? If you have to check them at night ... but to stay there while they're getting changed? Most inappropriate. If that's what really happened."

Peter Lind, director of the New Zealand Teachers Council, said there was an expectation a teacher's behaviour would be in line with the code of ethics.

The code states that teachers must be "mindful of the learner's ability, cultural background, gender, age or stage of development".

Calls to be axed

Act leader Rodney Hide said the allegations were serious and Mr Benson Pope should be stood down.

"These are fresh investigations never considered by the police. If they stack up, there won't be the excuse they are historical."

Mr Hide said the suggestion the school received complaints meant Mr Benson Pope had "problems in Parliament", as earlier answers suggested there had been no complaints about him.

National MP and Social Development spokeswoman Judith Collins said: "I can't understand why Helen Clark persists in keeping that man in such a sensitive role as Minister of Social Development."

- HERALD ON SUNDAY

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