Parents of ballet pupils fear a continued lack of accountability for allegations of shocking abuse at the school - despite a court ruling confirming its outgoing headteacher will not be returning.
Photo: dpa

BerlinThe row between parents and city education bosses following shocking allegations of abuse against the Berlin State Ballet School in Prenzlauer Berg has deepened with a verdict in the former headteacher’s appeal against his dismissal. On Wednesday, a Berlin employment tribunal ruled that the education department’s sacking of former headteacher Ralf Stabel, was invalid – apparently for technical reasons.

That means Stabel won the appeal against his dismissal – but is still out of a job. The sacked headteacher did not appear in person at court. Meanwhile, Emine Demirbüken-Wegner, CDU politician and head of the Berlin board of education, is now demanding the resignation of Sandra Scheeres (SPD), the city’s senator for schools.

Earlier this year, the Berlin State Ballet School and School for Acrobatic Arts faced repeated accusations of serious abuse. Headteacher Stabel was the main focus of the criticism, and was accused of not intervening. An independent review in the spring described a “climate of fear”, physical attacks, emotional and psychological violence, sexualised remarks and a neglect of duty of care.

Pupils were reportedly subjected to insults, drills and body shaming. As early as November last year, two-thirds of school staff published an urgent letter expressing their concern for the wellbeing of pupils. Stabel is accused of not having responded.

After the revelation of the accusations, Berlin’s education department released Stabel from his duties as headteacher, banned him from the school and subsequently confirmed his dismissal. The reason given for the sacking was that children had not been provided the legally required rest period after several evening performances of The Nutcracker at the end of last year.

Stabel was also faced with claims of failing to meet his teaching obligations. The education department’s lawyers argued that teaching lessons was important for the headteacher to be sure of pupils’ wellbeing. Even if the allegations had been untrue, it was added, Stabel had not found a suitable means of communication to clarify this – and in so doing failed in his responsibilities.

Intimidation, humiliation, degradation

Two teachers are the main subjects of the accusations: Mr X and Ms Y. An open letter signed by a dozen parents accused Mr X of throwing pupils out of his lessons, calling them “assholes” and subjecting them to intimidation, humiliation and insults.

Ms Y’s tone in lessons was described as harsh, hurtful and degrading. On one occasion, she allegedly left pupils in one of the city’s opera houses following a rehearsal, leaving them to find their own way home. Furious parents subsequently refused to send their children to school as long as they were exposed to such teachers.

Ralf Stabel appealed against his dismissal – and on Wednesday won his case. Judge Thomas Kühn said the working relationship was not yet terminated for two reasons: firstly, the legally specified period of two weeks between the first accusations and the dismissal announcement was dramatically exceeded. In actual fact five months had passed between the two events. The accusations against Stabel were also insufficiently substantiated, according to the court.

“You have to name names,” Kühn said. He added that it was not for the court to assess the overall climate at the school.

However, Kühn added that Stabel’s continued employment as school headteacher would not be possible. His appointment in 2007 was not well-grounded, legally speaking. According to Berlin school policy, only a person “who demonstrates knowledge and skills that exceed teacher training and are required for running a school” should be appointed as a school headteacher. The law does not provide exemptions and, as a theatre scholar, Ralf Stabel should never have been appointed headmaster by Berlin's education department.

A blind eye turned?

Education senator Sandra Scheeres (SPD) faces calls to resign over the ballet school debacle.
Photo: picture alliance/ dpa

The city education department confirmed after the ruling that Stabel “will not return to the school. This is what we wanted to achieve with the instant dismissal, and this is now how the court sees the matter too.”

The school’s spokesperson did not comment on the court’s finding that Stabel should never have been appointed as headmaster 13 years ago. Further proceedings involving Stabel lie ahead. He is also taking action against two other dismissals, relating to diplomas and a number of work trips which the headmaster should not have had approved by the board that oversees the school.

“Failings by the school’s management have been coming to light little by little for more than half a year now. These should have been addressed long ago by a well-functioning and conscientious school inspectorate,” school board head Demirbüken-Wegner said after the verdict. But it didn't happen, she said, because Berlin officials wanted to bask in the school's reputation rather than acknowledge the unsuitable behaviour.

“The flagrant violations of child protection made no difference to this,” she said. She listed off a numer of other serious allegations such as taxpayer-funded trips and allegedly despotic behaviour towards teachers. All under the watch of school's boss Scheeres – whose resignation Ms Demirbüken-Wegner is now demanding.

Her calls are backed by hundreds of supporters of the online platform ‘Save the Dance’, among them several prominent arts figures. An open letter signed by a dozen parents detailed the accusations against teachers at the school in full, and pledged legal action against Scheeres for neglecting duty of care and endangering child welfare.

However, the two teachers who were the subject of a torrent of complaints are still in their jobs, to the disbelief of parents and pupils – and some have expressed their fear that nothing will change despite Stabel’s departure.

"Like a Kafka novel"

One father, Yan R., told the Berliner Zeitung how his daughter gave up her place at the school she once loved after Ms Y took over her class in 2019 and screaming and insults become regular features of lessons. When the 14-year-old received her timetable for the new school year and saw lessons with Ms Y still scheduled in spite of the many complaints, she made the tough decision to transfer to another ballet school, 600 km away from her family, friends and home in Berlin.

She marked her departure from the school with a letter that she read to her class and Ms Y at the start of the new school year – but her father says she is still unhappy at the new school, which she attends as a boarder due to being so far from home.

A mother of another aspiring ballerina compared the process of trying to hold teachers to account to “a Kafka novel”. She and others complained that Scheeres’ department had very publicly fired Stabel, as well as the school’s artistic headteacher, before identifying reasons for doing so. They have complained of a lack of a proper investigation by the department into the serious allegations, with accusations all the while gaining prominence and damaging the school’s reputation.

Since the dismissal of Stabel and the school’s artistic headteacher, Berlin’s youth ballet company is on hold, without anyone to take charge of it. In response, 39 pupils called for the school’s reputation to be salvaged in their own open letter over the summer holiday.

“Dear politicians! We are desperate! We need performances. We want to show the world who we are. That is the reason we have been training up to six times a week since childhood,” it reads. The stalling of the company, combined with controversial plans to reduce the focus on artistic education, has led pupils to fear they will graduate from the school with no chance on the international ballet stage.

Scheeres is accused of making the dismissed school leaders into scapegoats for the unacceptable treatment of pupils at the school – and of not caring that the school’s internal structure and previously glowing reputation have been damaged in the process.

Stabel had previously been showered with praise for his commitment to the modernisation and international networking of the school, its introduction of a bachelor’s degree, and establishing the youth ballet. And after all, as headteacher Stabel was not classed as an employer, and was not able to issue warnings or sanctions against staff – he could only pass on complaints to the city’s education department.

Translated by Elizabeth Rushton