Investigating alleged wrongdoing a difficult task for principals
Member Services is here to help
A teacher at our school has been consistently late for school this week. How do I as the principal deal with that?
My principal wants to meet with me. I don’t know why. She said I should call the ATA.
A parent has complained to my principal that I embarrassed her child in class. Now my principal wants to meet with me. What do I do?
Dealing with issues of potential teacher misconduct requires diligence on the part of the teacher being investigated and on the part of the person doing the investigation. Any person accused of wrongdoing has the right to procedural fairness, including full disclosure of the particulars of the accusation, identification of the accuser and an opportunity to provide a complete response. A careful and comprehensive investigation of alleged misconduct ensures that the interests of students, the public and the profession are served. Teachers accused of misconduct have an obligation to co-operate and act with honesty and integrity throughout the investigative process.
Allegations of teacher misconduct are typically brought to the attention of an administrator by a student, a parent, a colleague or through observations on the part of an administrator. When initiating an investigation, it is important to remember that the allegation is simply that, an allegation, until it has been proved or disproved through a proper investigation. Allegations can quickly take on a life of their own in an environment of hyperbolic adolescent drama or where an offside parent makes erroneous claims that ought to prompt an investigation of the parent rather than of the teacher.
Skilled administrators have the ability to separate legitimate concerns from frivolous and vexatious claims that, without a carefully crafted investigation and response, can too easily set a teacher up for an unnecessary career crash. Member Services (MS) executive staff officers regularly help both teachers and administrators navigate these tricky waters. An early call to MS at the time of the initial concern can prevent unnecessary collateral damage. False allegations, poorly investigated complaints or an overreaction to an aggressive parent can result in a teacher experiencing inappropriately administered sanctions, damage to reputation and health issues.
Let us examine a common scenario that an administrator can face and some suggestions for dealing with it. Let us suppose that you are an administrator and parents have come to you with a concern that their child’s teacher is picking on their child. The teacher is accused of yelling at the child and calling her lazy. How will you proceed?
You should have a twofold concern for the safety and security of the child and the teacher. The mantra, “children first” sounds intuitively appealing and smoothly flows off some people’s tongues, but at the same time it is a sentiment rooted in simplicity and, at times, superficiality. We have all seen questionable practice at all levels exercised in the “best interests of the child.” Education is a people business. We have an obligation to all. We do not throw one set of stakeholders under the bus for the benefit of another, nor is there a need to. Human interaction is complex and cannot be reduced to satisfying the needs of one at the expense of another.
With respect to our scenario, effective administrators proceed through these sorts of allegations with care and caution, paying attention to their obligations to all parties. Having recognized that all parties have rights and obligations, the administrator should ask the parent what steps she has taken to address the concern with the teacher. Principals should be wary of parents who refuse to engage with the teacher or who offer up, “The teacher never listens to me.”
Principals can help parents understand the importance of partnering with the teacher and the potential positive effect this has on the child’s schooling. Most parent–teacher conflicts can be successfully resolved through communication and, if necessary, coaching.
Where parent–teacher conferencing is not working, an administrator may need to step in. Once the full allegations from the parent have been made, the administrator must bring the allegations to the teacher. The teacher has a right to know who is making allegations against her and the specifics of such allegations.
If others have been named as potential witnesses by either the parent or the teacher, the principal can decide the necessity for further investigation. Sometimes the issue is clearly determined without the need to investigate others. The administrator needs to judge whether or not the benefits of further investigation outweigh the complexities of dragging a number of parties into the investigation and risking disruption to the teaching environment.
In cases where it is deemed necessary to interview others, the teacher has a continued right to know who is saying what about the incident and should be given an opportunity to respond fully. The teacher’s right to be allowed to provide a full and accurate response to allegations will be compromised if there is only partial disclosure of the allegations and the evidence gathered.
Once the principal has gathered all the evidence necessary to determine what actually occurred, she can bring closure to the matter in one of two ways. In the situation where there is a determination of non-culpability on the part of the teacher, the principal advises the parent as such. If the principal finds wrongdoing on the teacher’s part, the principal determines what form of resolution must occur.
Sometimes, there will be no corroboration of the allegation, and the principal is faced with an allegation on the part of the parent and a denial on the part of the teacher. Ultimately, the principal is faced with the task of deciding and has the right to decide. It may come down to credibility – factors such as the likelihood of the alleged facts having occurred and the historical context may need to be considered. The principal must be prepared that a party may not agree with her determination. So be it. Procedural fairness includes the right to appeal, and either party may choose to elevate the matter to the district office for further investigation. So be it. As long as the principal has done due diligence in her investigation and has ensured that the rights of — and responsibilities to — both the complainant and the teacher have been met, the principal’s job is done.
Where the principal believes there is wrongdoing on the part of the teacher, the next task will be to determine a resolution. What will be most beneficial in moving forward? Is there a need to mend the parent–teacher relationship? Does the teacher require coaching? Are there health issues that need to be addressed? How best to communicate to the parent and the teacher? What does the parent have the right to know? Is disciplinary action necessary? Is documentation required? Should central office be involved?
These are all questions that MS can assist with. It is wise to call when you are first alerted to concerns by any complainant, whether it is a student, a parent, a colleague or some other party. Executive staff officers can provide assistance throughout the process and help you to ensure a fair and competent investigation.
The responsibility of the principal to direct the management of the school is enshrined in section 20 of the School Act. The principal’s responsibility to evaluate the teachers employed in the school is also enshrined in this section and is further governed by Alberta Education policy. At times, however, a party in an investigation, including the principal, may choose to escalate the matter to the school district office.
MS can help determine the pros and cons of such action. Typically, MS executive staff officers advise that serious allegations be brought to the attention of central office. Principals will need to remember that their obligations under the Code of Professional Conduct remain throughout the investigative process, as do the obligations of any other active member of the Association, including parents who are teachers. Section 13 of the code states that, “The teacher criticizes the professional competence or professional reputation of another teacher only in confidence to proper officials and after the other teacher has been informed of the criticism, subject only to section 24 of the Teaching Profession Act.”
Thus, an administrator as a teacher is obliged to share all concerns with a teacher prior to reporting those concerns to a superior. Again, guidance from MS can help you avoid the pitfalls of the investigative process.
Principals should inform teachers under investigation to call MS for advice on their rights and obligations in the process. This is another important task of the administrator in ensuring procedural fairness for the teacher. At times, there may be a need for the teacher to access representation during an investigation, and this right must be available at the beginning of the process, not the middle or the end, lest the results of an investigation be compromised.
Teachers under investigation will find themselves in difficult circumstances, whether the allegations are true or not. Teacher health can suffer during an investigation. This can be exacerbated in the face of potential or actual employment action, such as suspension, or being placed on unassigned duties. Such action should only be taken in extreme circumstances or where required by legislation.
Removing a teacher from a classroom or school during an investigation often creates a situation of tremendous uncertainty and disruption, creating a myriad of other issues that increase the burden of responsibility on the principal, such as managing rumours, maintaining confidentiality, overseeing the teacher’s successful return and controlling other dynamics of fallout that investigations generate.
Final considerations that must be considered include determining whether or not the concern at hand is in fact an issue of conduct. Is it simply a disgruntled parent? Is it a spiteful student? Is it a competency issue on the part of the teacher that requires an entirely different approach? Is it an ultra vires issue (one that’s beyond the powers of legislation), such as off-duty conduct that has no ramifications in the school? MS executive staff officers await the calls of teachers and administrators faced with what can be a daunting experience for both parties.
The screen that exists between MS executive staff officers ensures that conflicts of interest in assisting both parties to a conflict are avoided, thus protecting the confidentiality of all members in what can be a challenging and stressful experience for those who are party to investigations of conduct.
Keith Hadden is an executive staff officer in the Member Services program area of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.