WARNING: This story deals with teenage suicide, mental harm and trauma and may be upsetting.
A husband and wife who worked as high school counsellors have won almost $1.8 million in damages for workplace stress after they dealt with 32 deaths in one community during their time at the school, including student suicides, fatal car crashes, terminal illnesses and murder.
The amount is believed to be the largest award made in the Employment Court but Kath and Ron Cronin-Lampe say while they feel “great relief” from the judgment against Melville High School in Hamilton, the emotional and financial cost of the 12-year legal battle has taken a toll.
“If our case had been settled expediently by the Melville High School Board of Trustees, the emotional and financial cost to us and our family would not have been so great,” the couple told NZME.
“School counsellors are at the chalkface of youth and adolescent mental health. We hope this judgment will pave the way for increased resources, so they have adequate support to do their work.”
The December 5 judgment was one of two by Employment Court Judge Bruce Corkill on the case this year.
Kath and Ron worked at the low decile high school with a roll of 900 as guidance counsellors for 16 and 15 years respectively, spanning three principals from 1996 and 1997 until their employment ended on medical grounds in late 2012.
During that time Melville High School [MHS] suffered an “extraordinary number of traumatic events” in its student body, staff and wider community with 32 deaths, Corkill said.
These included clusters of current and former student suicides, a staff member’s attempted suicide at the school, and the suicide of a student’s mother after his father already died that way.
Other unexpected tragedies involved fatal car crashes including one where the student driver was charged with manslaughter, a student who was struck by a tyre while walking to school, terminal illnesses, and the murder of a former student by another ex-student.
The Cronin-Lampes were actively involved in the tragedies and in assisting students and staff with other “very challenging situations”, Corkill said.
They counselled students for domestic violence, sexual orientation, sexual and psychological abuse, eating disorders and self-harm, and both students and teachers were helped with addiction and mental health issues.
The first cluster of suicides began in September 1997 with a 15-year-old boy accused of stealing someone’s jersey. He was called a thief and liar in class.
The day the boy died he had been given detention. After his death Kath was required to carry a cellphone and be on call.
A month later a 16-year-old boy who’d just left school died by suicide and in the aftermath the couple’s mobile number was circulated.
Later that year principal David Randell directed the counsellors to be contactable at all hours and business cards were given to families.
Three months later in January 1998 a 15-year-old student died by suicide, leaving behind his twin sister at the school. The next day, another 15-year-old student took his own life.
Randell told the court the four deaths sent students into a state of “extreme unrest” and multiple suicide threats and attempts were reported to him weekly that year.
He said the Cronin-Lampes were “thrust into chaotic times for which they were totally unprepared, untrained and unskilled”.
One student alone attempted suicide 32 times in 1998 and 1999.
In March 1998 Kath wrote to the assistant principal that the odd work hours due to emergencies and suicides left her and Ron with a “sense of exhaustion”.
A trauma expert was sent to the school and a “Postvention Team” was set up but requests for funding including for supervision for the counsellors was declined by the Ministry of Education.
That year the Cronin-Lampes were inundated with students who were threatening or attempting suicide and the counsellors were not allowed to decline referrals.
Corkill said many of the students did not meet the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services [CAMHS] referral criteria because they did not have a diagnosable mental illness and although they could be referred for assessment they were declined mental health support and directed back to school.
In 1999 Ron told Randell he and Kath were “stressed out”, overworked, overburdened and under pressure.
By 2000 the couple were “run down” by the demands of their jobs and lack of proper supervision.
In January that year, Kath outlined in a letter to the deputy principal some of their onerous duties including assisting students in emergencies like domestic violence, locating emergency placements, supporting them through pregnancy terminations, attending family group conferences, and supporting students in court.
Kath once spent time in hospital with a student dying of a terminal illness and Ron conducted several of the funerals.
Another cluster of suicides began in late 2003 and when one at-risk student was referred to CAMHS in early 2004 she was declined on the basis self-harm and suicidal ideation were not its responsibility.
After they left at the end of 2011 Kath and Ron raised unjustified action grievances asserting the board failed to meet health and safety obligations and to manage workload and workplace conditions adequately.
They claimed the “traumatic incidents” and the “traumatic services” they rendered were “hazards or harms” in the workplace causing an unmanageable workload.
This led them to suffer severe stress and exhaustion and they were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] and unable to return to school in 2012.
After a protracted legal case including a claim to ACC in 2016 that was unsuccessful, the couple found themselves back in the Employment Court.
In his August 30, 2023 judgment, Corkill granted the couple leave to raise their disadvantage grievances after he found their evidence credible.
He dismissed counterclaims made by the school that the couple did not raise concerns.
In Tuesday’s judgment Corkhill awarded the couple more than $1.79 million in lost income, superannuation, rental income, interest, and medical expenses to be paid by December 20.
The couple’s lawyer, Toby Braun, said they had to engage in a decade-long court battle and the emotional, physical and financial toll had been “immense”.
Ron and Kath said they felt great relief at the decision.
“We have always believed in our case and feel that the issues raised have now been validated.
“The 12-year court battle has been gruelling, re-victimising and retraumatising and a reflection of the length of time these matters take to be heard and determined.
“Once in the court system there was no way of knowing how long it would take to be resolved. We put everything on the line and felt we had no other option than to stay the course, but one can imagine that many legitimate claims do not make it this far.”
The couple said with a possible appeal and the imminent dissolution of the school, which is being amalgamated with Melville Intermediate in January, they were “still a long way from feeling like we are through this”.
“The work we did as school counsellors was a privilege.
“We wanted to be able to do our work in a safe and supported way and believe we would still be doing it if we got the help we needed.”
Melville High principal Clive Hamill said he was disappointed by the outcome.
“The case has been a protracted one that continued for more than a decade and we appreciate there’s support during this process that we received from our insurer and our counsel Paul White, but we cease to exist at the end of this school year so progressing forward the matter really rests with the Ministry of Education.”
Ministry of Education central region deputy secretary Jocelyn Mikaere said the Ministry was considering the judgment and had no comment.
However, NZME has seen correspondence from the Ministry stating that after the school closes it would become responsible for any outstanding debts and liabilities as well as the conduct of the litigation, including any possible appeal.
Natalie Akoorie is the Open Justice deputy editor, based in Waikato and covering crime and justice nationally. Natalie first joined the Herald in 2011 and has been a journalist in New Zealand and overseas for 28 years, recently covering health, social issues, local government, and the regions.