Mark Thompson, Eltham Primary School principal, died suddenly. Picture: Supplied
Mark Thompson, Eltham Primary School principal, died suddenly. Picture: Supplied

Death leads to support call for educators

ON SATURDAY, just like she has done each year for the past five years, Lynda Thompson will make a donation to a Beyond Blue fundraising tribute page.

The donation is in memory of her husband, Dr Mark Thompson, a state school principal who took his own life on December 7, 2014.

Dr Thompson was a long serving and respected principal. In the weeks leading up to his death, his family say worries around a parent complaint spiralled, undermining his mental health.

He felt the complaint was unwarranted and the parent vexatious. The family says a Christmas card from the parent, accusing him of discriminating against her child with a disability, was the last straw.

Fifteen months earlier the mother had inquired about enrolment at Eltham Primary School and was told she would need proof of address. She later said she had found a more suitable school but then came the card which included notifications of high level complaints to the department and education minister.

After his death wife Lynda, also a school principal, struggled to work. She won a WorkCover dependent's payout acknowledging that work related stress caused his death.

The coroner also said that work related stress was a contributing factor to his death.

But, she says this week, no amount of money could compensate for the loss of her husband and father to three. Since Dr Thompson's death the family has welcomed four grandchildren and he was not there to walk one of his daughter's down the aisle for her wedding.

Education minister James Merlino announced measures earlier this year to support principals. Picture: Alison Wynd
Education minister James Merlino announced measures earlier this year to support principals. Picture: Alison Wynd

Out of the system for three years, Ms Thompson said she hears regularly of the pressure principals and teachers are under.

"Mark was dedicated to two things in his life his family and as a passionate educator. He worked tirelessly for both. Unfortunately the latter became too much of a strain on him mentally," she said.

"He was seeking help from professionals, his family and close friends but unfortunately the battle was not won."

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Ms Thompson said her husband was being treated for anxiety and was clinically assessed as not being a suicide risk.

He had assured her he would not do anything but on that Sunday morning he left the house and never returned.

The news of his death rippled through the community.

"I still talk to many people. It is one of those things. Everyone remembers where they were when they found out Princess Diana died. Friends tell me it is the same with Mark. They all remember where they were when they found out," she said.

Five years on, Ms Thompson said she is concerned that tackling the issues is still in the too hard basket.

In what is considered a landmark case, Ms Thompson was able to argue that the escalation of the complaint, which instead of being worked out at school level, went higher and compounded pressure on her husband.

A principal for seven years before she quit after Dr Thompson's death, Ms Thompson said principals and schools had huge demands on them, including managing behaviour and expectations of families.

One secondary school this year took the step of asking, via its newsletter, for parents to stop being so aggressive to teaching staff. While it said it was not widespread, it needed to call it out.

She said it was clear that many teachers with the potential to be great principals were shying away from the job.

A huge number of principals, in the state and independent sectors, are retiring in coming years with fears there are not people coming up through the ranks.

At the time at his death Dr Thompson was working on a paper exploring why assistant principals were reluctant to take on the job as principal, citing long hours, stress, burnout and abuse by parents.

Friend and co-author Dr Loretta Piazza completed the study.

A Catholic primary school in Rosanna was rocked by the suicide of loved principal Dane Malone in April, this year.

Ms Thompson said since her husband's death she had been assured that barricades would be installed at the spot in Greensborough where he took his life.

"We know of two other suicides since Mark's in that same spot. We were told that barricades would be installed," she said.

In a chilling reminder, Ms Thompson said another family close to them had lost a son to suicide in the same area 10 years before Dr Thompson.

Ms Thompson said she set the page up with the aim of raising $1000. By Saturday it will have tipped over $25,000.

Over the five years the children, colleagues, family friends and strangers touched by the loss have donated to the page. In poignant posts his children have donated to the page on milestone days such as his birthday and Father's Day, saying they would much prefer to be giving their dad a Bunnings voucher rather than donating to the page.

The couple would have been married 38 years in August, having met at teachers' college.

Over the past few years Education Minister James Merlino has announced funding to improve the health and wellbeing and career development of teachers and principals.

Donations to the Dr Mark Thompson tribute page here.

 

IF YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW NEEDS HELP:

• See a doctor, organise a mental health plan for visits to specialists.

• Access beyondblue.org.au online or call 1300 22 46 36 anytime.

• Lifeline on 13 11 14.

• If you are concerned take them to a hospital emergency department.

• If you fear they will hurt themselves call police triple-0 immediately.

claire.heaney@news.com.au



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