Gislingham man walks free after child cruelty trial

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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.

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.”