31 March 2011: SHARON O’KEEFE hopped in an old brown van on Tuesday this week and, $500 poorer, headed for Narrabri where she works as a cook for a cotton-picking crew. Better known as Moon, to friend and foe alike, the previous day she’d pleaded guilty in Charleville magistrates court to common assault and public nuisance for attacking Wyandra state school principal Kerryanne Hughes at a swimming camp.
Stopping for fuel in Cunnamulla, the 54-year-old grandmother displayed some of the paperwork associated with her case – her police record, statements from witnesses and Wyandra cop Rob Tunnadine, and a letter from the education department banning her from the premises of Wyandra state school for 60 days. “It makes us out to be a bit like Bonnie and Clyde. All it was was a bit of abuse and an attempt to slap the teacher,” she says. “I told her a few home truths in colourful language.”
Shortly after midday on Monday 14 March Moon and her daughter Kelly Howlett, 34, were involved in a confrontation with Kerryanne while parents, students and teachers from small schools in the district were arriving for swimming camp at the Charleville showgrounds. The Wyandra principal refused to allow Kelly’s five-year-old daughter Erin to join the camp as her mother had not supplied a birth certificate to formalise her school enrolment.
The witnesses’ statements diverge on some aspects of the ruckus but Moon admits she lunged at the teacher with the intention of slapping her, claiming she was incensed by the way Kerryanne looked at some Wyandra parents standing nearby. “Get that f****** smirk off your face. You’re f****** smirking,” she shouted.
In her statement to police, Kerryanne said she hadn’t finished parking her car with students inside when Kelly demanded aggressively to speak to her about her child’s enrolment. Kelly, who also had two younger children in tow, said the school had told her she had until the next day to furnish a birth certificate, which was due to arrive in the post the next day. Kerryanne reminded her the school had been requesting the document for six weeks but it would not change the fact Erin could not legally attend the camp that day.
“Kelly then said in a threatening manner, ‘I’m going to bring that certificate here tomorrow and jam it down your f****** throat until you can’t f****** breathe’,” the principal said in her statement. “She again leaned in towards me as she spoke. Kelly continued to protest but then Sharon O’Keefe stepped forward and abused (me), ‘I don’t know what your doing here anyway. Call yourself a principal? You’re not a f****** principal. No one likes you anyway. Everyone hates you. You’re a f****** c***.’ Sharon advanced towards me and said words to the effect of, ‘I’m sick of her, I’m going to smash her.” Sharon advanced towards me and lunged at my throat, catching a hold of the front of my shirt.”
But parents Ben McDonald and Trish Agar, both from grazing properties near Wyandra, stepped in. Moon abused them too, telling them to get out of the way and that she wanted to get Kerryanne. In his statement, Ben said Moon continued to threaten the principal and tried a number of times to get around him. Finally he was able to usher her away towards her car and she seemed to cool down for a few minutes. Meanwhile, Kerryanne went to the hall to check on her students and apologise to the other teachers who’d rushed their charges inside the building through a side door.
After about five minutes they decided it was quiet enough for the kids to collect their gear from the buses and cars parked outside. Kerranne was at the back of her car handing things to students when Moon again approached, yelling “I’m going to get you you f****** c***.” “Having had the pleasure of knowing Sharon O’Keefe I was expecting it and was able to keep Sharon O’Keefe away while Trish Agar called the police,” Ben said.
Kerryanne said that at one point Ben, whom Moon describes as a mountain of a young man, had to physically hold her assailant. “Sharon O’Keefe continued to shout abuse and threats. “You just watch yourself. When you are at Wyandra at the pub drinking wine with your f****** cocky mates I’m going to come in and jump on your f****** head and smash it in.”
Moon freely owns up to the wine-drinking line but now says she wasn’t seriously trying to attack the teacher. “I was just trying to scare her a bit. That was just putting on a bluff. The fire had gone out of the situation by then and I was trying to save face. I said all those wrong words. It was colourful language, me saying what I thought of her in no uncertain terms.”
Trish said in her statement she told Moon to go home a number of times, which only seemed rile her and Ben had step in between them. “Sharon didn’t seem to be able to make any coherent or logical argument and was just enraged, railing and swearing,” Trish said.
When Moon launched her second foray, Trish agreed after a few words with Kerryanne to call police. “The whole time Kerryanne kept her cool and showed exemplary conduct and true professionalism during a very tense and potentially dangerous time with her personal safety at extreme risk,” Trish said, adding that she believed the two women had worked themselves into a rage before arriving at the racecourse. “I believe that Kerranne was physically in extreme danger from Sharon and Kelly. Sharon was not in control of herself at all. I also believe Kerryanne remains at risk of harm from these two people, Sharon O’Keefe and Kelly Howlett.”
In her statement, which forms the basis of the education department’s prohibition order banning both Moon and her daughter Kelly from the school, Kerryanne said Kelly’s eldest daughter’s Facebook page had stated something to the effect of, “Mum’s going to bash up the teacher today. This will be the highlight of my day.” Kerryanne added that she feared the women still intended to harm her.
In letters dated 17 March, Moon and Kelly were banned from Wyandra school for 60 days by Education Qld assistant deputy director-general Patrea Walton under section 340 of the 2006 education act. Kelly, a mother of six, says she moved to Charleville last week so Erin could go to school there. But she says she will contest her ban at the state administrative tribunal and wanted her daughter reinstated at the Wyandra school. She says she was at her car tending to her children during her mother’s assault and was not involved.
“I didn’t act violently towards the principal, abuse her or yell at her,” she says. “Nobody could hear what I was saying. I never had any issues with the principal until that day.”
In his statement to the education department, copper Pom Tunnadine said he feared the two women might try to assault the principal at any given opportunity and steps should be taken to prevent them accessing the school.
Both Ben and Trish declined to discuss the matter with the Watchman. However, Trish says Kerryanne will be leaving the school at the end of term. “It’s a terrible shame. She’s a wonderful teacher. How many people like that do you get coming to these one-horse towns?”
Before getting back into the brown van for the trip south, Moon says Erin is the fifth generation in her family at Wyandra school. “My mother Dolly Wright was the first student at the school. I was school captain and school captain and dux of Charleville high school. I want my grandchild in education and I have respect for education. But I have no respect for police, especially our local policeman.”
Moon says when magistrate Michael Hogan handed her the $500 fine on Monday he told her that at 54 she was a bit old for such incidents. “He said it’s about time you worked out what’s going on in your life. I said to my solicitor that in five years’ time when my great grandchild is attending Wyandra school, I would do the same thing. It could have been dealt with in a much better way.”