Some MLAs are urging the Public Schools Branch to get more input from students on how complaints of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behaviour by teachers are investigated, and to reduce some of the discretion allowed on whether staff should report certain complaints to administration.
"[Students] are the ones who matter in this," said committee chair and Green MLA Karla Bernard. "Their voices need to be in here."
The concerns were raised at a legislative standing committee meeting on education on Tuesday.
The committee was briefed on the PSB's current policies and procedures covering sexual violence and inappropriate behaviour in schools. The policies being referenced apply to behaviour by students and all school staff, however most of the questions centred on teacher behaviour and protections for students.
That included several questions related to the case of former band teacher Roger Jabbour who was convicted of sexually touching three students.
The safe and caring learning policy went through an extensive review in 2018, said Terri MacAdam, PSB director of student services, with input from district advisory councils, principals and support staff, home and schools, and the public. Students were made aware through the PSB website that they had an opportunity to speak to the policy revision, but she wasn't sure whether any students responded.
Five complaints investigated
MacAdam told the committee she's investigated five complaints by students against teachers in the two years she's been director. Those ranged from inappropriate behaviour — such as violating a student's personal space — to sexual behaviour. MacAdam said all five resulted in discipline, ranging from a conversation on personal boundaries to dismissal.
She would not say specifically how many of the complaints involved sexual behaviour.
However, MacAdam made it clear that staff know any allegation involving sexual misconduct must be reported to her office, and child and family services immediately — that's mandatory under P.E.I.'s Child Protection Act. "Any allegation that comes forward of sexual misconduct or abuse is taken seriously and receives immediate action," she said.
"It needs to be a lot more black and white" - Karla Bernard, education committee chair
The reporting policy isn't so clear when it comes to inappropriate behaviour by teachers, though. It says people are "encouraged to report" incidents, said Green MLA Michelle Beaton. "It suggests that there's a discretionary approach to reporting incidents within schools."
"There's a lot left up in my mind, to interpretation … perceptions," said Bernard. In an interview with CBC after the meeting, she said, "I think that inappropriate behaviour is kind of on a spectrum, from not a big deal, to a big deal. At what point does a whole bunch of no big deals turn into a big deal? There's just that whole section in there that is really grey where it needs to be a lot more black and white."
That's why staff are encouraged to document complaints, MacAdam told the committee, and have had training on the importance of doing that, and how to do it — as it can speak to a pattern of unacceptable behaviour.
MacAdam said between 400 and 500 principals, education assistants and other support staff were trained on when to report complaints, who to contact, and the steps to do that, and principals were told to share that with all staff. The PSB has about 3,000 staff and 19,000 students.
She said behaviour can be misinterpreted, for example a teacher putting a hand on a student's back to direct them into the classroom. When investigating complaints that aren't clearly sexual or violent, the principal would listen to the student and any witnesses, and investigate.
"That's where it gets a bit dicey and where we need to continue to work with our schools on what does that really look like, what does that sound like," said MacAdam.
MacAdam said that responsibility rests with principals, but involves staff, students and parents too. "I think we need to continue to empower our young people."
Bernard also urged the PSB to make public the number and nature of complaints against teachers received every year and what action was taken. "It's important that the public has confidence in what the school board is doing to address sexual misconduct in schools."
Bernard said the policy and procedures need to clearly spell out how and when complaints can be made, and reduce the discretionary power of when complaints are investigated, and that information needs to be shared clearly with students and parents.
"For every person who reports, there's way more that haven't," she said.
Green MLA Michelle Beaton asked whether students who've left school can lodge a complaint. "Any student that has a complaint, gone or not gone from our system, we would still want to hear from them," said MacAdam.
Several questions related specifically to former teacher Roger Jabbour. After he was convicted of sexually touching three former students, two dozen other students told CBC about inappropriate behaviour over three decades of his teaching. Referring to those CBC reports, Beaton said, "They'd reported inappropriate behaviour but aren't sure if any action was taken. How can this be?"
MacAdam said she couldn't speak to anything that happened before she took on the role as director, but said she has investigated everything that was reported to her, and kept students and families informed during the investigations to make sure they had the support they needed.
Referencing the Jabbour situation, PC MLA Cory Deagle asked whether the policy of investigating complaints existed at that time. "It was kind of brushed aside to a certain extent.… If we were following this policy it might've been caught a lot earlier — not 30 years into his career," said Deagle.
MacAdam said she didn't think there was a formal policy in place before this.
When Deagle pointed to the power imbalance of a student reporting a complaint about a teacher, MacAdam said if anyone doesn't feel comfortable telling a principal, or isn't satisfied their complaint was taken seriously, they should contact her directly. She said she's heard from parents who told her they didn't know who to call. "We have to do more to let them know. It's definitely something we need to get out there to the public."
MacAdam said the next step is to make the policy available in a format that's easier to understand: "more parent-friendly, kid-friendly." Her office is creating some pamphlets and plans to make it available on social media, and also intends to better promote the kids helpline.
Bernard said the committee would be meeting to review the policy and decide whether to make recommendations on changes.
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