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  (Curtis Lantinga)

 

(Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

We've institutionalized teacher abuse Add to ...

One day last year, a popular Toronto music teacher named Lou D'Amore received a registered letter from the school board superintendent. It said: "This is to formally notify you that effective immediately you are removed from your position. You are to remain at home, with pay, pending the outcome of CCAS investigation." There was no elaboration.

Mr. D'Amore was baffled and distraught. He'd been teaching for 31 years, and his record was exemplary. Then the union president informed him that a Grade 5 boy had accused him of assault during an Ash Wednesday performance of the school choir, which he had conducted, on his own time, at the local church. The boy's psychologist had reported the incident to the Catholic Children's Aid Society. Mr. D'Amore was banned from school property and forbidden to contact anyone at the school until the CCAS completed its investigation. He didn't even know who the boy was.

Mr. D'Amore's story is not uncommon. In its panic over allegations of abuse against children, the education system has institutionalized teacher abuse. Every year, hundreds of teachers in Ontario alone are reported to children's aid societies on suspicion of physical assault. The system is clogged with frivolous cases. One complaint was filed after a teacher placed her hand on a student's shoulder to move him along in line.

School officials are not allowed to handle these complaints themselves any more. The system is too terrified of being accused of cover-ups. Instead, all complaints of abuse must be reported to the overburdened children's aid societies. This gets expensive. Social workers are sent out to investigate, and everybody lawyers up. The accused teacher must be replaced until the case is resolved, and that can take up to a year.

Today's teachers are cautioned to avoid all physical contact with students, especially when disciplining them. Still, the number of investigations is on the rise. The vast majority of these cases are eventually dropped or dismissed.

Mr. D'Amore waited 12 days to find out what he was supposed to have done, and to whom. The 11-year-old claimed the music teacher had slapped him across the face, in a full church, in front of everyone. He was a troubled kid with a history of disturbed behaviour. His story kept changing and there was no evidence that anything had happened. But that did not deter the CCAS from conducting a protracted and inefficient investigation that kept Mr. D'Amore isolated at home for two long months. The CCAS did not consider his track record or his character. In fact, it didn't interview him or anyone who worked with him. And because he was instructed to avoid children during the investigation, he couldn't even pick up his four-year-old at school.

After Mr. D'Amore was cleared, there were no apologies to him, and no consequences for the young accuser - not even a reprimand. The boy was removed from the school soon afterward because of his disruptiveness. "The union implied I should be grateful that it got me off," Mr. D'Amore says. One children's aid worker told him that accusations of abuse are just another occupational hazard - especially for someone who's taught as many years as he has.

Against the advice of both the union and his principal, Mr. D'Amore insisted on telling the other teachers the real reason for his absence once he returned to school. Afterward, another teacher told him the same thing had happened to her. But most teachers are too intimidated to complain.

In the old days, incidents such as this would have been informally resolved by the principal in short order. But today, the application of common sense by the relevant adult is considered far too risky. Everybody knows the system has become absurd, but no one wants to take responsibility for changing it. No one wants to be perceived as less than hyper-vigilant about the safety of our children.

The cost of pursuing frivolous cases against teachers would buy a lot of textbooks. But the human costs are even worse. As Lou D'Amore puts it, "We've destroyed trust."

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