Globe and Mail

So how hard is it to fire a teacher?

MARGARET WENTE
Globe and Mail

Tuesday, October 17, 2000

Ateacher in Saskatchewan is caught sending dozens of sexually charged e-mails to the girls in his Grade 8 class. In them, he assumes various fake identities and sometimes pretends to be a teenage girl who says it's lots of fun to dominate male teachers. When one of the girls' parents complains, the school board launches an investigation and promptly fires him.

A teacher in Ontario is caught writing dozens of sexually charged love notes to a 13-year-old boy in her Grade 8 class. "There can never be another honey for me," she writes. "I trust you to keep your hands where they belong." She's his "hottie," and he's her "big stud." Sometimes she signs them, "Love, your woman." They exchange gifts and hugs. The boy's parents discover the notes and complain. But instead of being fired, the teacher is suspended and ordered to take psychological counselling for "boundary violations." Nine months later, she's back in school, teaching Grade 3.

Do you catch a whiff of double standards in the air? So do the amazed parents of the kids in Laura Sclater's Grade 3 class. "If it was a man who sent letters like that to a 13-year-old girl, he wouldn't be allowed near the school," says one of them.

But the case of the lovelorn lady teacher isn't just about double standards. It's about the helplessness of parents in the face of a system that sometimes seems incapable of dealing with its rotten apples.

"We felt that we as parents had no rights," says Christine Fines. She has two kids at Holly Meadows Elementary, the school in Barrie, Ont., that was dealt the short straw in the form of Ms. Sclater. She'd like someone to tell her how Ms. Sclater, 30, wound up back in the classroom. The principal says it's not his fault. The school board made him take her.

Ms. Fines found out about Ms. Sclater the second week of school, when another parent came knocking on her door. The other parent had heard it on the radio. The parents demanded to meet the school board, which assured them she was an excellent teacher and their children were safe. "This is just a blip in the school horizon," said the board's spokesperson.

The police, meanwhile, were launching a criminal investigation, and on Oct. 3 Ms. Sclater was suspended again. The principal and the parents were told she was off sick. On Friday, she was charged with three sex offences. "Who's accountable?" wonders Ms. Fines. "Is it the Ontario College of Teachers? Is it the teachers union? Is it the school board?"

In Ontario, "professional misconduct" includes "performing acts or omissions that would be regarded by members as disgraceful, dishonourable or unprofessional and engaging in conduct unbecoming a member." You might think that sending 64 intimate letters to a kid in your class might qualify. But you'd be wrong.

The teachers college decided Ms. Sclater had a medical problem, not a moral problem. So it referred her to a fitness-to-practice hearing rather than a disciplinary hearing. A three-member committee (consisting of two teachers and one government appointee) heard from various psychologists. One said that teachers with boundary problems like hers "are likely to repeat the behaviour," and concluded that "students are potentially at risk should she continue in a teaching role." Another branded her naive and immature. The Children's Aid Society warned that she shouldn't be allowed to work with children, and had her put on the child-abuse register.

The teachers college sentenced Ms. Sclater to therapy and, nine months later, pronounced her fit to teach, so long as she kept away from adolescents.

Ms. Fines doesn't want to string up Ms. Sclater. She doesn't even mind if Ms. Sclater stays employed in the school system. It's Ms. Sclater in the classroom she minds. "Being stupid is not an illness."

The college says it doesn't fire teachers, school boards do. But when it returned Ms. Sclater with a cleaned-up bill of health, the school board didn't have a leg to stand on. Ms. Sclater has a good lawyer, courtesy of the teachers union. It's a lot cheaper and easier to plea bargain than to fight.

The public-school system has thousands of wonderful teachers. But it has almost no way to get rid of the incompetent, the negligent, and the emotionally crippled. Just how hard is it for a teacher to lose her licence? If she's a she, the odds are vanishingly small. Of the 175,000 public-school teachers in Ontario, a grand total of 35 have been kicked out of the profession since 1997. All were men. Thirty-two of them were expelled for various forms of sexual misconduct, generally after criminal convictions.

On Friday, the college's top brass hastily convened to suspend Ms. Sclater's teaching certificate and call another hearing. Will she set foot in a classroom again? I bet not. But why does it take the cops to get an unfit teacher out of school?
E-mail: mwente@globeandmail.ca

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