May 2015

Gislingham man walks free after child cruelty trial

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Michael Watts (left) and Gerald West

Two former staff members at a boarding school who admitted child cruelty offences have walked free from court.

Sentencing Gerald West and Michael Watts, Judge Rupert Overbury on Friday said he accepted that they may have been working with inadequate training and support.

Ipswich Crown Court was told that West, 71, of Martins Meadow, Gislingham, and Watts, 59, of Sellwood Road, Netley Abbey, Southampton, had both worked for Suffolk County Council at the now-closed Oakwood School in Stowmarket. The school, which shut in 2000, catered for boys aged between eight and 16 with behavioural and educational difficulties.

Appearing for West, Robert Pawlson said: “He has given his professional life to Oakwood School. He gave his all. He tried his very best however there were certain situations where he was placed in the most difficult and the most invidious circumstances with very little help.”

Mr Pawlson added: “His genuine intention was always to help pupils and in many cases he did exactly that.”

Last week, West and Watts both changed pleas from not guilty to guilty on two of the charges of cruelty to a person aged under 16. Judge Overbury instructed the jury to return not guilty verdicts on other charges faced by the pair after the prosecution said they would not be offering further evidence.

Watts’ barrister James Keeley said that requests for training and support had been turned down by the school, on the grounds of cost.

Mr Keeley said that Watts, who was in poor health, admitted that at times he had been too regimented, behaved inappropriately and had sometimes “ranted and raved.” Mr Keeley told the court: “This is not his fault at all. His training was as a bus driver. He was unprepared and in a quite invidious situation in which he did his best”

Former pupils from Oakwood School packed the public gallery and the concourse outside the court as West and Watts were sentenced.

Imposing a 12 months conditional discharge on West and Watts, Judge Overbury told them: “Every incident appears to have resulted from a loss of control, no doubt arising from the pressure of dealing with difficult children.”

Judge Overbury said the offences were a gross breach of trust but appeared to be isolated and not part of a pattern of ill treatment.

Meanwhile, the former headteacher at the school convicted of child sex offences has been jailed for seven years.

Eric De Smith, 75, of Danes Close, Stowmarket, who was found guilty last month of four offences of indecent assault and three of indecency with a child, also appeared on Friday.

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De Smith, who has continued to protest his innocence since being convicted, was told by Judge Rupert Overbury: “Throughout the ages teachers have been highly respected members of the community in whom trust has been given by parents to care for their children.”

Judge Overbury said the actions of De Smith in sexually abusing boys in his care was been a gross breach of trust and affected the lives of some victims profoundly. During De Smith’s trial the jury heard allegations that he had sexually abused boys in his office on the pretext of administering medication or checking they had not placed anything inside their clothing before he administered corporal punishment.

De Smith was arrested at his home in Stowmarket in March 2013 and during a police interview denied having done anything wrong.

Sentencing him to a total of seven years imprisonment, Judge Overbury told De Smith: “You committed these offences for your own perverse, personal sexual gratification.”

May 2015

Stowmarket’s Oakwood School child cruelty pair change pleas to guilty

Two former staff members at Stowmarket’s Oakwood School have changed their pleas on child cruelty charges to guilty

Gerald West, the deputy head at the boarding school, and Michael Watts, who worked as a child care officer, had spent the past six weeks on trial at Ipswich Crown Court after pleading not guilty.

But today, West, 71, of Martins Meadow, Gislingham, and Watts, 59, of Netley Abbey, Southampton, each pleaded guilty to two offences of cruelty to a child aged under 16.

The prosecution said that no further evidence would be offered in respect of eight similar charges against West and five against Watts.

The pair are due to be sentenced on Friday (May 22).

During the trial the jury had heard allegations of beatings and force feeding of food which staff knew would make pupils sick.

Former pupils alleged that they had been hit and kicked, struck with bats, dragged by the hair and repeatedly slapped.

Former pupils also claimed that when they tried to write to their parents to complain, the letters were torn up by staff.

The allegations related to a period spanning from 1974 until 1999 and were said to have involved about 20 boys.

Oakwood School, which is now closed, had catered for boys aged between eight and 16 with educational and behavioural problems.

Also being sentenced on Friday will be Eric D’Smith, 75, of Danes Close, Stowmarket, the former head teacher at Oakwood, who was found guilty last month of four offences of indecent assault and three of indecency with a child.

Details of his trial and the subsequent verdicts could not be reported at the time because of an order restricting publicity while the trial of the other four former Oakwood staff members was taking place.