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Alberta Education Minister bans four teachers, calls for stricter discipline

Grade 2 teacher Natalie Ruel in her french class at Mother Teresa elementary school in Calgary, Alberta, June 21, 2012.

TODD KOROL/The Globe and Mail

Alberta's Education Minister is looking to address "shortcomings" in the teacher disciplinary process after he overturned suspensions by the union and instead banned four teachers – including two in cases involving sexual misconduct – from ever working in the classroom again.

Jeff Johnson used his ministerial power to revoke the professional teaching certificates of four teachers who either physically or sexually abused students, engaged in inappropriate online relationships with them or committed fraud, overruling suspensions meted out by the Alberta Teachers' Association.

In one instance, Mr. Johnson overturned a four-year suspension for a teacher who, among other things, gave a student an "assignment" to masturbate in the shower and then text-message him details while he masturbated. In another instance, a teacher's certificate was revoked by the minister for engaging in sexual intercourse with a student and then providing false information to investigators, according to documents released by the province.

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"Any parent who reads these files will see clearly that the current system needs to be strengthened," Mr. Johnson said in a statement Thursday. "The individuals in question should never be allowed to teach again. It's very disconcerting to know that the people currently involved in the disciplinary process don't feel the same way and believe that, despite a finding of guilt, this egregious behaviour warrants merely a suspension."

Mr. Johnson said the current process, where a hearing is conducted by two teachers and a member of the public named by the Minister of Education, lacks accountability and transparency.

"I hope to work with the ATA to address the shortcomings of the system. This isn't a labour issue, this is about protecting students and ensuring Alberta classrooms are safe for everyone," he said.

Tensions between the Alberta teachers' union and the government have heightened since the release of a provincial task force report in early May that educators say attacked their profession. The task force said that the ATA appeared to have a conflict of interest in both advocating for teachers and disciplining them, and, among its recommendations, it stated that the review process be assumed by the Minister of Education.

The ATA said it believes Mr. Johnson's intervention in these four cases have been politically driven and that he wants more control over the profession. The ATA can either suspend or cancel membership of teachers to its organization, and then request the government do the same with a teacher's professional certificate.

Gordon Thomas, the ATA's executive secretary, said that when the professional conduct committee suspends the membership of the teachers involved, the chances of them returning to the public or separate school system is very low. In the seven-decade history of the ATA, only one teacher has returned to the classroom after being temporarily suspended. This is because educators have to go through an onerous process to demonstrate their fitness to teach again, Mr. Thomas said.

"What we've got here is part of this overall effort to undermine teachers," Mr. Thomas said of the minister's interference, the first time he has done that. "The ATA's suspension protocols are the strictest in any profession in the country."

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Mr. Johnson revoked the teaching certificate of an educator who had consensual sex with an 18-year-old student before he was about to graduate. The hearing committee had imposed a three-year membership suspension in the case, but it was increased to six years when the ATA's executive council appealed the decision. The ATA asked the minister to suspend the teachers' certificate for six years; the minister disagreed.

Asked whether the ATA should have cancelled the teacher's membership outright, Mr. Thomas said: "This was a consensual relationship right at the end of Grade 12 and they felt a suspension was appropriate."

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