Toronto Sun

March 4, 2001

'Professional misconduct' or just plain abuse?

LORRIE GOLDSTEIN -- Toronto Sun

In light of recent disciplinary decisions involving the Ontario College of Teachers, you're probably wondering by now what, exactly, a teacher has to do to be fired in Ontario.

Apparently quite a lot. In the 68 hearings the college has held since April, 1998 (the college was formed a year earlier), the licences of 38 teachers have been revoked.

Twenty-five of those cases involved some sort of allegation of sexual misconduct while the remaining 13 involved such things as fiscal malfeasance, providing false credentials, etc.

According to the college's communications office, not one of its 178,000 members, including 145,000 teachers, has lost his or her licence for simple incompetence.

Now this is either a marvellous testament to the competence of each and every teacher, or a depressing testament to the long-standing complaint of many parents about how hard it is to get rid of bad teachers, what with the many layers of union protection and board bureaucracy which often paralyze even competent principals from taking action.

Last year, a judicial review by retired judge Sydney Robins of the more serious problem of sexual misconduct in Ontario schools concluded that a horrendous case in which a male teacher preyed on students sexually for more than 20 years - while they were vilified instead of him - was "just the tip of the iceberg."

Robins found that the common practice of shipping even sexual offenders (let alone mere incompetents) from school to school and board to board year after year in order to evade the problem rather than deal with it, is known within the teaching profession as "passing the trash."

While the college deserves credit for its openness in dealing with these matters, and for holding public hearings, the very fine distinction it has made in its latest decision involving the obviously troubled Annie Mary Markson, 33, and her bizarre behaviour with a 14-year-old Unionville Catholic school Grade 8 student in 1998, is cause for concern.

Last week, the college found Markson guilty of professional misconduct, but not of sexual, psychological or emotional abuse, despite a series of sexually charged mash notes she sent to him, plus engaging in secret meetings in which we know that, at the very least, there was kissing and hugging.

The college will decide in May whether Markson should lose her teaching certificate - a no-brainer for most parents, one would think. But the distinction the college has made in this case between what constitutes "professional misconduct" and what constitutes "abuse" is worrisome.

It looks like the college is suggesting there would have to be proof of sexual relations between the teacher and student to reach the level of abuse. Scary.

We need only recall the embarrassing case last year (for the college and the local school board) when another troubled teacher, 30-year-old Laura Sclater, was originally suspended for writing 64 love letters in 1998 to a 13-year-old Grade 8 student at a school south of Barrie. Despite this, Sclater was later quietly returned and allowed to teach at another school, after counselling, over the objections of some local parents, whose concerns were downplayed by the board.

This before Sclater was again removed and placed in a non-teaching job after criminal charges of sexual assault, sexual interference and invitation to sexual touching were laid against her in connection with a 1998 incident. She is now awaiting trial. While it's up to the courts to decide her guilt or innocence, surely it should have been clear even before the criminal charges that she simply doesn't belong in teaching.

That said, a few points to keep perspective. Most cases regarding allegations of sexual misconduct against teachers involve male teachers with female students. One of the reasons the above two cases have attracted so much publicity is because of their relative rarity - plus the lingering, foolish and wrong notion among some in society that while a sexual relationship between say, a 30-year-old male and 14-year-old girl is immoral, reverse the sexes and what you have is every young boy's dream. In fact, regardless of the sexes of those involved, it is a profound abuse of trust by a person in authority with the potential to do enormous harm to the child.

Of course the vast majority of teachers would never sexually abuse a student, just as most are competent.

And just as there are usually one or two teachers in every school whom every knowledgeable parent knows shouldn't be teaching - as do their colleagues, the principal and most students - there are also just as likely to be one or two certifiable parents with far too much time on their hands, who do nothing but make trouble for the school.

While it's rare, we also cannot rule out the possibility of a few malicious parents (or even students) making false allegations of sexual misconduct . Indeed, the present climate of fear in schools is such that many teachers are afraid of giving a student even a supportive hug, a tragedy in the elementary grades where children often need and crave this kind of positive affection.

But the fact a problem is complex doesn't mean it should paralyze us. A system that fails to find a credible way of stopping the practice of "passing the trash" between schools year after year - the trash of incompetent teachers, let alone sexual abusers - is one that ultimately fails the students, parents, taxpayers - and teachers - of Ontario.


Lorrie can be reached at (416) 947-2212, by fax at (416) 947-3228 or by e-mail at lorrie.goldstein@tor.sunpub.com. Or visit his home page.
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