The teacher, the groundsman and what really happened in the school shed

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This is a story about a teacher, Barbara Lee, and a groundsman, Paul Swindles, who met at a state school in the outer eastern suburbs of Brisbane and became close.

At first they kept the relationship quiet but in September 2006 they turned up together at a school fete, effectively announcing themselves as a couple.

At the time, she was 37 and he was 42, a divorced father looking after his three daughters on his own. He had previously worked as a French polisher and took the groundsman job to be close to his children. His youngest daughter would go to his shed after school and wait until it was time for them to go home.

Everything was going well, according to accounts presented in the District Court, and Lee and Swindles bought a house together in 2007.

But one day a note was found on the windshield of Lee’s car parked at the school. The letter, purported to be from Swindles, described in graphic detail a desire for sex with Lee.

It ended with the suggestion that she come to his shed again for some “practice”.

The note included a favourable comparison between Barbara Lee and a young girl.

And it mentioned Swindles’ youngest daughter by name, referring to the fact that she had pyjamas similar to those of Lee.

Lee said that she was shocked and upset when she read this. Swindles denied that he had written it and Lee believed him.

They reported the matter to the principal who then passed on the information to the police.

The next day, the principal told the two that there had been anonymous phone calls, allegedly from a parent, accusing Lee and Swindles of talking and texting about, and engaging in, sex at the school.

After that, there were a series of harassing phone calls which came in on either a land line or one of their mobile phones.

In August 2008, while Lee was on bereavement leave when her father died, the saga took a different turn. One of the teachers at the school began to publicise a book her husband had written.

The book had some parallels in real life. It was set in a primary school in Brisbane and narrated by a female teacher whose husband was a writer.

A flyer advertising the launch of the book was put on the notice board in the teacher staff room. The author’s wife made comments suggesting that some staff members were featured in the book.

Lee found the contents upsetting, because the book described an affair between a teacher and a groundsman.

And, she said, the book implied that the characters were having sex on the school premises, something both Lee and Swindles say never happened.

The other teachers at the school were unhappy as well and on February 20, 2009, a meeting resolved that they wanted the teacher promoting the book removed.

That teacher, upset by the strength of the hostile reaction, left immediately.

The book Primary Instinct, by David Philip Reiter is about a teacher called Jan Early who meets a groundsman called Bob. There’s a chapter called Bob the Groundsman and his Shed.

The case came to light because Lee and Swindles took the Queensland government to court, saying the Education Department had breached its duty of care and caused psychiatric injury by allowing the book to be publicised at the school. The school is not named in the court documents.

The judge, Douglas J McGill, in the District Court, didn’t agree with Lee or Swindles. The school couldn’t be expected to vet the book just because a flyer had been put up.

In fact, the judge wasn’t impressed by the book.

“It is not the sort of book that I would ordinarily read, and I took no pleasure in reading it,” the judge said. “It strikes me as badly written, and it has certainly been very badly proof read.”

The judge counted 50 mistakes in the book, including incorrect wording of the first line of the national anthem.

Giving evidence, Lee and Swindles emphasised similarities between characters and incidents in the book and those at the school where they worked.

However, numerous significant differences were identified in cross-examination.

“To me the points of distinction are dominant, although no doubt there is much in the book that was not the product of original writing,” the judge said. “In particular, there were many differences between Ms Lee and the character Jane Early.”

The judge suspected that the fact that the wife of the author was a teacher at the school, that the book was set in a primary school, and that a number of incidents which had actually occurred at that school found their way into the book meant that those associated with the school were looking for points of similarity.

“It would be natural enough for a husband and wife to talk about the events that occurred during their work, and the characters involved, and it may be that the author’s wife had more to talk about of this nature,” the judge said.

“It does not necessarily follow that she was deliberately gathering material for him, though it would be consistent with her having done so. Certainly the author was content to incorporate into the book incidents which had actually occurred at the school, and features of some staff members at the school.

“It may be that this aspect of the book is emphasised to a knowing reader because there is otherwise a paucity of character development, or anything in the way of a plot.”

Lee and Swindles separated in 2010 and sold their house.

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