By Dharisha Bastians
Students of the Uduvil Girls College (UGC) in Jaffna handed over a petition to President Maithripala Sirisena opposite the Jaffna Library yesterday, as crisis deepens in the church administered school over a popular headmistress who was retired this week.
Falling at the President’s feet last afternoon, the schoolgirls wept and appealed to him to intervene to reinstate Shiranee Mills as Principal of UGC. In their petition, the students asked President Sirisena to ensure their safety and wellbeing and ‘release the school from the grip of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India (JDCSI) by making changes in the governing body’.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry, I will take action,” President Sirisena soothed the crying school children and their parents at the Subaramaniam Park where he was attending an anti-narcotics programme the Government had organized during his Northern tour.
A group of Uduvil Girls College schoolgirls have been engaged in protests and hunger strikes at the school against the appointment of a new Principal over the past week. At least one student was hospitalized briefly during the fast.
Mills, who turned 60 on 7 September, was requested to vacate her post upon reaching maximum retirement age as per an employment contract signed on 24 October 2009 and after she was refused a further extension by the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India which administers the private Christian school.
The CSI’s Jaffna Diocese is headed by Bishop Daniel Thiagarajah.
On Wednesday, Northern Province Education Minister Thambyrajah Gurukularajah wrote to Bishop Thiagarajah asking the church to ‘cease all steps’ to terminate the services of Principal Mills and appealing to him to reconstitute the board of management of the school since he believed it was “biased”.
Bishop Thiagarajah replied the Minister saying that Uduvil Girls College was a private school whose control and management were entirely with the Church, including the appointment of principals. In his letter to Gurukularajah, the Bishop said that the installation of the new principal had already been concluded and that the appointment was now a “concluded matter.” Bishop Thiagarajah also requested the provincial minister to “desist from interference with this matter” in his three-page letter.
Appointed principal in 2005, Mills is credited with having transformed the school, with a focus on English language training, IT, sports and personal development. Her contribution to the upliftment of educational standards at the Uduvil Girls College resulted in a wave of protests, particularly by the school’s alumni when news broke that she would retire in September 2016 upon reaching the age of 60. Past pupils argue that principals of UGC have traditionally retired well over the age of 67 years.
However, Bishop Thiagarajah told Daily FT that the retirement was not a matter of surprise since the school’s board of management had been planning for Mills’ retirement in September 2016 at separate meetings in August 2015 and February 2016, that the principal had also attended. Principal Mills had been granted extensions of service for the past three years, after she turned 57. Her final extension was approved in August 2015 during a Board Meeting at which she participated, Bishop Thiagarajah said.
Minutes in Daily FT’s possession show that on 10 August 2015, Principal Mills submitted her own name in a list of 2016 retirees before the school Board of Management. Mills had even put up a notice on the school notice board announcing the vacancy of principal, and informed the Bishop that she had displayed the notice, authoritative sources told Daily FT.
Subsequent to the announcement of the vacancy, Mills also submitted an application for reappointment, which she says she did on the instructions of the Bishop, and submitted to an interview process. Principal Mills had not been the choice of the selection board, and was not granted an extension. Past pupils have alleged that the selection board had been biased against Mills.
The executive Committee of the JDCSI appointed Patricia Suneetha Jebaratnam as Principal with effect from 7 September 2016 but Mills said in an interview last night that she would be willing to resume her position.
“At the moment since the new appointment is already made the only option open to me is to hand over. But if there is a possibility within a legal structure to return to the school and work with the children again, I would be willing to do that, provided the administration of the school is made more democratic,” Mills told Daily FT.
Bishop Thiagarajah meanwhile insisted that the selection process had been independent and transparent and that the new principal recommended by the selection board would be a good choice.
The Bishop appealed to students and parents involved in the protest to maintain the dignity of the school. “The issue is being created by third parties with vested interest. Until that happened there was no problem, Principal Mills agreed to vacate and hand over by 6 September 2016,” the Bishop said in an interview.
Principal Mills is yet to vacate the principal’s bungalow inside the school premises, but has promised a local district judge to move by Monday (12). Mills said she had agreed to hand over to the new Principal on Monday (12) but informed a local district Judge that she would need two months to vacate the residence. School administration officials however told Daily FT that the Judge had communicated to them that Mills would move her personal items out of the residence by the end of September.
The Mallakam District Judge who is also magistrate of the area intervened in the issue after the school girls complained to him that they were being ‘beaten’ for protesting. Protesting parents and students allege that there had been assaults and crude remarks cast on the school girls on Wednesday (7), by teachers returning to the school following a retreat. A probation officer has been stationed at the school to ensure the safety of students. Officials of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and the National Child Protection Authority also arrived at the school on Thursday to look into the students complaints and verify their security, Bishop Thiagarajah told Daily FT.
The Uduvil Girls College saga has taken a major political twist, with Northern politicians of every shade now in the fray and flocking to the site of the protests over the past week. Suresh Premachandran, leader of the EPRLF which is a constituent party in the Tamil National Alliance and Northern Provincial Councillor Ananthi Sasitharan are accusing Jaffna District Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran of ‘political interference’ in the school.
Sumanthiran represented Bishop Thiagarajah, who is under fire for not extending Mills’ term, in legal action against the breakaway faction of the church seven years ago. During that case, Sumanthiran moved the court against Mills on the basis that she had perjured herself three times in cross examination. Principal Mills has also been embroiled in a legal battle with the Church over a disciplinary inquiry which went up to Supreme Court, where the case was dismissed. Sumanthiran was legal counsel for the Diocese in that case as well. The Jaffna District MP was a practicing lawyer and had not entered politics at the time.
Bishop Thiagarajah said it was ironic that the only politician who had not stepped foot in the school since the unrest started and had no involvement in the issue in 2016 was being flayed for interference with school matters.
Mills told Daily FT that Sumanthiran had a ‘natural animosity’ towards her because of past legal tangles in which he represented the Diocese.
Mills was sacked in 2009 after the legal battle, but subsequently reinstated after then Minister Douglas Devananda intervened on her behalf following appeals by the students. Similar protests to reinstate her had taken place in 2009.
She was reinstated on the basis of a letter of apology she issued to the Church, regretting among other things not adhering to directions of the School Board at the Church executive committee. In her reinstatement contract, Mills undertook to abide by the directives of the school management board and the Diocese, and clauses that indicate that her extensions will be at the sole discretion of the management.
Further politicizing the issue, Daily FT learns that Devananda had visited Principal Mills at the school on Thursday (8). Mills confirmed that the EPDP leader had paid her a visit, but noted that many other politicians had also visited. Devananda and State Minister for Education V.S. Radhakrishnan were instrumental in getting the students an audience with President in Jaffna yesterday, Daily FT learns.