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Former Shetland teacher on trial for sex offences says six boys are lying

Stephen Tait, 41, is accused of acting in a lewd, indecent and libidinous manner towards the pupils more than a decade ago.

Stephen Tait denies the charges, which were alleged to have taken place at Bells Brae Primary School in Lerwick.
Stephen Tait denies the charges, which were alleged to have taken place at Bells Brae Primary School in Lerwick.

The trial of a former primary school teacher accused of historic sexual offences against six of his pupils has started in Peterhead.

Stephen Tait, 41, is facing six charges of acting in a lewd, indecent and libidinous manner towards six young boys while he was employed as a probationary teacher at a Shetland school more than a decade ago.

All the offences are alleged to have taken place when Tait was working at Bells Brae Primary School in Lerwick.

Peterhead Sheriff Court heard that Tait’s accusers are now adults but were all aged between eight and nine at the time of the alleged offences.

All six men, who cannot be named, gave evidence either in person, via a pre-recorded video, or remotely from Lerwick.

Former pupils give evidence

Giving his evidence in person, Witness A told the court Tait was “not as formal as the other teachers” and would often bring in PlayStation or Xbox games to the class.

However, he told the court about a “strange” time when Tait had asked the boys to write down if they thought their penises were “small, normal or big” and then collected the answers and kept them in a tray.

The man also told the court that Tait once asked him to try on a school uniform, including a shirt, tie and shorts, in a classroom cupboard.

Witness A said: “I was in there alone, but I remember him opening the door a couple of times to check on me.

“There was another time I remember being asked to stay behind at break time. Mr Tait asked me to write down all the names I knew for penises on the back of a piece of paper.

“After that, I remember him asking me to go into the cupboard and look at my penis.

“I did it quickly. He came into the cupboard and pulled down my trousers and underwear and started touching me on my penis.”

He told the court the touching continued for “about one or two minutes”.

“I remember being confused and uncomfortable – but I didn’t really understand what was going on and what had happened,” the man told the court.

Teacher came across as ‘kind and caring’

He also told the court Tait would also touch him on the back and buttocks while he was standing at the teacher’s desk.

Fiscal depute Ruaridh McAllister asked what impact this had on him and he replied: “I mostly want to move on and forget about it. I felt uncomfortable and quite angry.”

Tait’s defence agent Colin Neilson suggested to him that he had never been alone with Tait in a cupboard, to which Witness A replied: “I would disagree with that.”

Witness B’s evidence was played to the court as a pre-recorded video.

The man said Tait came across as “kind and caring” but added: “In reality, he was being kind in order to get away with things he should not have been getting away with.”

Fiscal McAllister asked what he meant by that, and he replied: “He was being overly kind so that he could touch you and so that the other pupils wouldn’t say anything.

“When I stood at his desk, he would lower his chair down to my level – he would grab my leg and because we were so low down – no one could really see him touching you.

“His head would be next to my head – I remember him breathing on my neck – it was horrible.

“He asked me to sit on his lap. I remember just doing it. He was the teacher and had authority – it was better to do what he wanted and not get into trouble.”

Presented pupil with pair of Speedos

The witness said Tait once asked him to stay behind at break, telling him: “I have a secret to tell you, but you can’t tell anyone else.”

“He told me we were going to go swimming next week,” the witness continued, “I got excited because I loved swimming.

“Then he said he had bought me swimming trunks but didn’t know if they would fit me. He said I was going to have to try them on.

“I was thinking – this is weird – and he pulls out a pair of Speedos.

“I told him, I was not going to do it while he was watching – so he turned around. I did it quickly and got dressed straight away.

“He looked cross when I turned around fully clothed – he was angry.

“He didn’t even ask me if they fitted.”

The fiscal asked if the class had indeed gone swimming the following week, and Witness B replied: “No.”

When cross-examined by Mr Neilson, the witness was asked if Tait may have been touching him in order to comfort him or if it could have been accidental.

He replied: “No, because every time it turned crude. He would grip my waist, touch my thigh or bum.”

Asked questions about private parts

Another of Tait’s pupils, Witness C gave pre-recorded evidence and also told the court Tait had touched him in the back and bottom while he stood at the teacher’s desk.

He told the court how Tait had asked him questions about how he cleaned his penis.

The fiscal asked whether this could have been part of a sex education lesson, but the man replied: “No, it was just me – we were alone.”

He described a car journey with one of his classmates, where they had been discussing some of Tait’s alleged behaviour.

The mother of one of the boys, who was driving the car, overheard and asked them to repeat what they had said.

Witness C said: “She stopped the car and we told her.”

He then went on to say he spoke to police in 2010 and was asked questions about the alleged behaviour but couldn’t remember what he told them.

‘I remember thinking it was weird’

A fourth boy from the class, Witness D, also gave evidence saying Tait had been “nice”.

He said: “He liked football and I remember he complimented me on my writing skills. He said I had the best writing in the class.”

He also told the court that Tait would touch him while stood at the teacher’s desk but “not for long”.

The court also heard that one classroom activity had been decorating t-shirts and Tait had told the boy to “go into the cupboard and try it on” when it was finished.

The fiscal asked if anyone else had gone into the cupboard with him, he replied: “I don’t remember.”

Witness E, another pupil of Tait’s told the court that the teacher had “often” touched him on the lower back, shoulders and bottom.

“I remember thinking it was weird. It felt uncomfortable,” he said.

“I remember looking at him, he looked annoyed because I had shrugged him off.”

He was also asked by the fiscal if these touches could have been accidental, he replied: “No, he should not have been rubbing my back. It wasn’t just a flick or whatever – it was up and down my back.”

Classroom assistant claims she saw touching

Witness F also told the court that the touching of his lower back and buttocks whilst at Tait’s desk had described it as being like “he was caressing it.”

Kathleen Johnson, 62, was a classroom assistant during Tait’s time at the school, and saw him on a weekly basis.

She said Tait had seemed “very laid back” and “male orientated” and thought the way he “leaned” over the boys had been concerning.

Mrs Johnson told the court that one day she had noticed “out of the corner of my eye” that Tait was rubbing a boy’s back and had thought it was “more familiar than he should have been”.

She also told the court that another time she had seen Tait “rubbing his hands” over a boy’s bottom and the boy had reacted by wriggling away.

The court also heard how another boy was seen by Mrs Johnson to have “jumped” away from Tait while he was standing at his desk.

She said: “I saw him jump away from the teacher’s direction.

“I remember the boy looked wide-eyed and shocked – he looked scared.”

She told the court that she thought she had mentioned this to Tait and had told him to stop.

Teacher denies former pupils’ allegations

When asked if she had told anyone in the school management about her concerns, but she explained that she lived far from the school and was often rushing to catch a bus.

But she told the court she did tell her manager “in passing” and also told the deputy head teacher Irene Smith.

Ms Smith, 73, also gave evidence but told the court she “could not recall” being told about any inappropriate touching and had given Tait an “excellent” reference at the end of his year, signing off his teaching qualification.

Detective Sergeant Lara Campbell interviewed Tait in August 2010, when concerns were raised and the court heard a recording of the interview.

Tait was not asked about inappropriate touching and was cautioned for a breach of the peace.

During the interview, Tait was asked about talking to two of the boys about their penises and he replied to say it had been part of the wider sex education curriculum and matters of personal hygiene.

‘I did not sexually abuse those children’

It was when another boy came forward in 2021 that Tait was interviewed a second time and this time charged.

Tait gave evidence to refute all six boy’s allegations saying they were “not true”, or “that didn’t happen”.

He said the discussions about penis sizes were brought up because someone had put a query in the class’s “worry box” and he wanted to allay their fears.

When asked by his defence agent Mr Neilson about the claim he touched a boy sexually inside a cupboard, he replied: “It didn’t happen.”

And then continued to describe how it “wasn’t possible” because someone would have seen him from the corridor going into the cupboard alone with the boy, adding: “I don’t see how you would get away with it.”

Tait said the classroom assistant Mrs Johnson who gave evidence to say she saw him touch a boy’s bottom, had “listened to gossip or hearsay”.

When cross-examined by Fiscal McAllister, Tait was asked of all the evidence of the six boys, other classmates and Mrs Johnson was untrue. He answered: “Yes.”

Mr McAllister said: “You sexually abused those children.”

Tait, who now resides in Lytham St Anne’s, replied: “I did not.”

The trial, before Sheriff Ian Wallace, continues.