Imagine you’re a parent of a young child who was sexually, emotionally or physically abused by their teacher. Then imagine you are advised that, to lodge a complaint, you will have to call that teacher’s association and the association alone will decide if it warrants investigation. If it does, the association will investigate it, they will prosecute the case and conduct the hearing. You are additionally advised that the same association that is prosecuting will also be defending the teacher. Yes, you read that right. Did I mention there will be no public disclosure of the findings or process? The Minister of Education, who has the formal role of regulating the profession and certificating teachers, is not allowed to see the complaints or know the status of the process. Only at the very end of the process, if guilt is found and a teaching license needs to be suspended, will the file be forwarded and shared with the Minister. And the typical recommended sentence if found guilty? A two-year suspension. In the modern age where our society prescribes to basic fairness, rule of law and transparency in the justice system, this sounds impossible right? Nope, this is Alberta.
Alberta is embroiled in a debate about the future of the Alberta Teachers Association. Will the politics take center stage again while the safety of our children takes a back seat, or is it time to finally have a genuine discussion on this? The reality is that a profound conflict of interest exists in the current teacher discipline process. The system is broken and has failed students, families and the profession. Some will spend the next several months pointing their fingers at others in the system. But blame and deflection can’t change the past and it won’t protect our children in the future unless we act now. Everyone, from the ATA, superintendents, principals, school board members and politicians have a vital role to play. They all need to acknowledge that there is indeed a problem and fix it.
If you think there are no issues, just take a look at the recent lawsuit that alleges a Calgary Board of Education teacher got away with years of horrific abuse of students. Although rare, predators and shocking cases like this do exist. I need to emphasize that educators in Alberta are inspiring and dedicated individuals. Our great teachers don’t deserve to have their reputations tarnished by cases like this that go unaddressed.
When I was Alberta’s Minister of Education the issues in our process alarmed me. I took unprecedented steps to overturn some of the inadequate disciplinary recommendations that came to me, and imposed stricter ones. Expressing my concerns to the ATA, I received the standard response: The process works fine and it is the school boards and superintendents who aren’t doing their jobs in filing complaints. When I asked for complaint files from school boards the public response by then-ATA President Mark Ramsankar was that the files are none of my business. As a Minister who called the process into question, I was vilified for ‘attacking the profession’. It seems history is repeating.
Last Thursday (December 9), the Minister of Education announced plans to overhaul the conflicted discipline process in Alberta. The rhetoric is already heating up, and the battle lines are being drawn. Who knew what, and when? Who is to blame? What are the real motives? The politics will once again be front and center, but as a parent I find myself asking basic questions like; when did protecting children become ‘an attack on the teaching profession’? Who calls child abuse cases ‘a distraction’? Isn’t the safety of children in the education system our most basic priority? If improving safety for children and increasing the quality of Alberta’s already great system works against the mandate of the ATA, then the minister’s point has been made for her.
To be fair, the ATA is in an impossible position. They are tasked with defending teachers and protecting children at the same time. Some days those roles can be synergistic, but clearly some days they cannot.
I encourage all education stakeholders to reach beyond the rhetoric of blame on social media and come to the table to collectively improve a system that is in need of reform. I credit Alberta Education Minister Adriana Lagrange for being courageous in stepping forward to lead this process. She is on the right track and deserves our bipartisan support. Serving the role of both prosecutor and defense doesn’t work in our justice system nor in other professions. Other provinces have modernized their teacher investigation processes and it’s time Alberta did the same.
–Jeff Johnson ( Former minister of education for Alberta and the chair of the Council of Ministers of Education of Canada.)