Former Onslow College teacher Derek Neal says his ‘nice bum’ comment was a one-off. Ex-students allege otherwise

A Wellington teacher who pinched a girl’s bottom and told her she had a “nice bum” had a history of making sexual comments in class, former students claim.

Former Onslow College teacher Derek Neal was censured by the Teaching Council’s Disciplinary Tribunal for serious misconduct following the incident, which happened at a student dinner.

Neal, who has taught English, media studies and co-ordinated outdoor education over his career, admitted to the incident and said he was “ashamed” of his behaviour. He blamed it on new medication he was taking and said his actions were completely out of character – but also said the student had thrown herself at him and was acting “sexy” and “lovely”.

He kept his practising certificate, as the tribunal said it appeared the behaviour was a one-off and no previous concerns had been raised during his nearly three decades at the school.

Five former students disputed parts of his account. They alleged to the Herald that Neal had made sexual comments to some students in his classes across a number of years, including rating girls’ looks and commenting on their bodies.

The alleged comments stretch back over more than a decade, they claimed.

They are also concerned that while Neal has retired from Onslow College, he is still allowed to teach – though he must tell any school he works at about the tribunal’s finding, including if he does relief work.

Neal declined to comment on the specifics of the allegations. He told the Herald he did not want to talk about “this whole horrible mess” and believed somebody was orchestrating claims against him.

The Herald put the allegations to Neal via email. He declined to comment further.
Earlier his partner told the Herald that Neal was “fragile” and on painkillers and she had forbidden him from talking to the media.

She claimed students who had got on the wrong side of Neal over the course of his career were making false statements against him, adding there was “malcontent and mischievousness” behind the claims.

“He’s had a 50-year career … he doesn’t deserve any of this stuff.”

Onslow College’s principal said she was deeply concerned to hear claims other students had experienced inappropriate behaviour from Neal and urged them to contact the school to take the matter further.

Hope Clarke was in a Year 10 media class with Neal in 2014. She was just 14 – “still a child” – when Neal first made inappropriate comments, she claimed.

“It started with him [favouring] me over other students by telling the class that I was his favourite student and always being overly nice to me. He would tell me I was ‘pretty’ and would stare at me, making me feel uncomfortable. One of my friends in my class noticed he would stare at me from behind too,” Clarke alleged.

One comment she claimed Neal had made had stuck with her over the years, she said.

“We were doing an earthquake drill and he said that during an emergency he would take only me into his office to keep me safe so that if everyone died, him and I could ‘re-populate the earth together’.”

She told her mother, who said she was livid and asked to meet with Neal at a parent-teacher interview.

But at the interview Neal had laughed off the comments, saying ‘kids are so silly sometimes’, her mother said.

Hope said she avoided Neal the following year and despite enjoying media studies, did not sign up for the class as she was too scared.

She said she had not brought the issue up with any other teachers because at that age she didn’t understand his alleged behaviour was not okay and he made it seem like a joke.

“I knew how it made me feel but I was so unaware [this kind of behaviour] wasn’t okay.

“Now that I am older, I can confidently say I believe that Mr Neal sexually harassed me during class when I was 14 years old … I really hope he isn’t allowed back at work,” she said.

Hope – who’s now 21 – left school in 2016 but her younger sister Grace was in one of Neal’s classes in 2017.

Grace said she vividly remembered him making inappropriate comments about her appearance from her first day in his class in Year 9.

Aged 13, she claims that she felt uncomfortable every day and said she didn’t want to attend his classes.

“The day I decided not to go back into his classroom was when my friend was doing her hair up and she asked me if her bun looked nice. Before I could reply, Mr Neal overheard and replied to her ‘Which bun? Because both your buns look nice’.”

Grace – who is now 17 – said she was disgusted and stopped going to his class.

The girls’ mother Noeline Cook said hearing her daughters’ accounts this week had turned her stomach and she was saddened she had not taken the matter further.

She remembered being thrown off by Neal’s comment at the parent-teacher interview and beginning to doubt herself, wondering if it was a one-off incident.

“At the time, I really did not grasp the full gravity of the situation,” she said.

She said she would be willing to take the matter further and make a complaint now.

Students of Neal’s from more than a decade ago have also spoken to the Herald. One student, who asked to be known only as Reuben, was in Neal’s English class in 2008, aged 15.

He recalled the teacher’s comments toward the girls in the class being “disgusting and incredibly objectifying”.

One English lesson had been spent discussing Renaissance artwork of naked women with the class of 14- and 15-year-olds.

Neal referred to the paintings as “Reubens’ lovely ladies”, Reuben said. “[He] would describe each image as he went, with phrases like ‘Look at her voluptuous breasts’.”

Reuben contacted the Herald because he was concerned Neal’s case could be used by the disciplinary tribunal as precedent for future cases.

In determining the appropriate penalty for Neal’s actions, the tribunal considered other cases of teachers crossing professional boundaries with students. Reuben feared other teachers facing action could use Neal’s case to blame their medication, and get a lighter penalty.

Sophie Mortensen-Cronin was in Neal’s class in the late 2000s. She told the Herald she was horrified to hear the bottom-pinching incident was treated as an isolated incident by the tribunal.

“I had classes with him every week for years and he was disgusting,” she claimed.

At the time it seemed like he was being funny, but “it was every class”, she alleged.
Mortensen-Cronin alleged that he discussed who was attractive or who was ugly.

One of Mortensen-Cronin’s classmates, who asked to remain anonymous, had been in Neal’s Year 13 media studies class in 2009. She claimed Neal had publicly rated the girls in her class, naming the top three students in the room that he found most attractive.

“One time when I was standing in the front of the entire class, just about to give my NCEA Year 13 Media Studies Speech, Mr Neal said “oh and we are all imaging (my name) naked now aren’t we?” and laughed.

“I was traumatised but not surprised in the least, because I knew him at someone who would always try to make any conversation become sexual in nature.”

Mortensen-Cronin confirmed her friend had mentioned that incident to her at the time it occurred. She had also seen Neal rating students’ appearance.

Both said they had also heard Neal bullying overweight students.

Mortensen-Cronin – who now lives in Denmark – said some students had laughed at Neal’s jokes – but “we were picking up our cues from him”.

“He was the only adult in the room and it was clearly meant to be a joke. I also think guys probably had a different experience – maybe it’s not as uncomfortable for them.”

“His behaviour as a whole was so overt that it’s really confusing to me now, looking back, that none of the other teachers supposedly knew what was going on,” she said.

She believed that had contributed to students not speaking up.

“You look to the adults for setting boundaries and guidelines, and if everyone else is acting like it’s normal you don’t do anything.”

Onslow College principal Sheena Millar said she was “deeply concerned to hear” claims from other students about Neal.

“Other than the incident raised with the Teachers Disciplinary Tribunal, we do not have any record of any other formal complaints made regarding Mr Neal,” Millar told the Herald in a statement.

“I urge any current or past student that has experienced or witnessed inappropriate behaviour to get in touch with me so that we can support them and can report their concerns to the Teachers Council for further action.

“This behaviour is not tolerated at Onslow College. Where we are alerted to an issue, we will always act to ensure a safe and respectful environment for our students.”

The Teacher’s Council said in a statement:

“Any further allegations or complaints can be made to the Teaching Council. The law requires that any complaints regarding inappropriate conduct by a teacher should first be referred to the teacher’s employer. If the employer has reason to believe that a teacher has engaged in serious misconduct, the conduct must be reported to the Teaching Council. Complainants may also refer their complaints to the Council if they’re unsatisfied with how the issue has been handled by the teacher’s employer.”

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