Imagine you are a school vice-principal. One day, a parent complains that the Grade 5 supply teacher made her son take a squishy banana out of the garbage can and eat it. How do you react? Do you (1) ask the parent if the kid might be exaggerating? Or (2) ask the teacher for her side of the story? Or (3) suspend the teacher, send her home, report her to the school board and call child-welfare authorities?
Obviously, the right answer is (3). Surprised? Don’t be. These days, you can’t be too careful. The teacher in this case, Susan Dowell, has 15 years of experience in the school system. She spent a month at home on partial pay while the Children’s Aid Society investigated her. She wasn’t even told what she was supposed to have done. The union warned her that the police could show up at her door at any time. The CAS eventually exonerated her.
“Children are getting a lot more savvy these days,” Ms. Dowell told the CBC’s Kathy Tomlinson, who reported the story last month. “It used to be, ‘Make the occasional [substitute]teacher cry.’ Now they know they can have you suspended.” For the record, her version of events is that the boy and his friends were acting up in class, so she spoke sternly to them. Later, when she saw the boy throw his uneaten banana into the garbage at lunchtime, she told him to eat it or take it home. “His parents paid good money for fruit like that.”
Ms. Dowell’s story is bizarre, but no longer rare. Across Canada, more and more teachers are being removed from the classroom because of allegations of abuse. Many, if not most, of these cases are dismissed for lack of evidence. Nobody knows for sure, because nobody keeps records. Teachers often spend weeks or months in limbo before they’re cleared. “It’s nuts,” says Jon Bradley, an education professor at McGill University who has written about this subject. “Many [accused]teachers feel embarrassed, and many are in a state of shock.”
In the bad old days, teachers’ abuse of students was often covered up. Now the pendulum has swung so far the other way that common sense has all but disappeared. Joel Westheimer, research chair in education at the University of Ottawa, blames an overall decline of respect for teachers, as well as what he calls the “criminalization” of disciplinary activities in schools. “We have a climate where people are not allowed to exercise the professionalism they are paid for,” he says. “When the kids get in a fight, the school calls the police.” He also blames parents, for automatically taking their kids’ side, and school administrators, who are so spineless that even a piece of fruit can make them run for cover.
Ms. Dowell argues that there should be consequences for students who make false allegations. Right now, there are none. The obvious lesson is that they can get away with anything. Meantime, teachers are presumed guilty until proven innocent.
What’s worse is that accused teachers like Ms. Dowell are never really cleared. She can expect no apology and no public explanation from the school to her colleagues, the students and their parents. As well as being investigated by child welfare, Ms. Dowell was also investigated by the school board. But when I called the board to ask if she’d officially been cleared of wrongdoing, they refused to tell me. “We can’t comment on personnel matters,” the official said.