ETFO has more detailed publications on all of the issues raised by this advisory, and a video documentary entitled "It Can Happen to You - Preventing Allegations of Assault and Professional Misconduct". (you must be logged into your WRDSB Google Account to access the video)
Failure to understand professional boundaries can lead almost any member to make serious mistakes - career threatening ones - in the management of teacher-student relationships.
Any act of professional misconduct can lead to disciplinary measures being taken by the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT). Even an unfounded allegation of professional misconduct could be permanently damaging to a teacher, to their family, and to the profession.
Professional Boundaries Defined
The term "Professional Boundaries" is not easily defined. When teachers were asked how they understood the term, ETFO learned that it can mean different things to different people. Some common responses were
violation of the position of trust;
abuse of power in a teacher's relationship with a child; and
teachers using their relationship to meet their own needs instead of the needs of their students.
The most extreme form of boundary violation is that of sexual abuse against a student. Sexual abuse represents the ultimate breach of the trust reposed in a teacher.
The Onus is On the Teacher
Teachers are responsible for recognizing in themselves whether they are "at risk" of crossing boundaries and, if they are, of addressing the issue. This makes the issue an important and dangerous one for teachers.
Teachers have a responsibility to address this issue when they witness a colleague who may be crossing boundaries. Administrators and colleagues need to recognize danger signals in other teachers' interactions, and to intervene. In serious situations, reporting suspicion of child abuse may be required.
What Places Teachers at the Highest Risk?
Insufficient training: Teachers insufficiently trained in their roles can become too personally involved with students. This can lead to actual or alleged sexual misconduct.
Ignorance of the law: There is no excuse for being ignorant of the law! Teachers need to be informed about legal liability issues and the standards of the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT).
In general, activities which take a teacher beyond the expectations of the employer could easily qualify as boundary violations. These include:
becoming too personally involved with students - friend, confident, surrogate parent;
seeing students in private or non-school settings;
writing or exchanging notes, letters or emails;
serving as a confidant with regard to a student's decision about his/her personal issues;
giving gifts or money to students;
inviting students to one's home or cottage;
having students stay overnight in one's home/cottage;
driving individual students to or from school;
giving one student undue attention;
being alone with a student with the exception of an emergency situation;
sharing your personal problems with students;
sharing personal information about a student with a third party; and
initiating physical contact.
The best way for members to protect themselves is to follow that old adage "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Teachers must be ever vigilant of situations that place them in vulnerable positions.
As a teacher, do you protect yourself by:
learning about the law and your liability as a teacher?
teaching with your classroom door open?
having another adult present when attending to the personal needs of special needs students?
complimenting or commending students without "hugging or touching" them?
reporting any reasonable suspicion of child abuse to proper authorities?
clarifying procedures with your principal regarding potentially threatening situations?
getting parents' and principals' approval regarding all activities off school property?
letting students know when they are overstepping your personal boundaries?
seeking input from colleagues or other professionals if unsure of the appropriateness of your actions or plans?
Remember … a caring professional relationship always helps a student to learn. But this relationship has boundaries of time, place, purpose and activity.
Members are advised to consult their Local President or Professional Relations staff in Protective Services at 416-962-3836 or 1-888-838-3836 for additional advice.
Allegations and related investigations can be extremely stressful and isolating. As your union, we are here to support and assist you through the process. Counselling and additional support are also available through your Employee Assistance Plan (EAP) if an EAP is available in your board.
Has someone made an allegation against you?
- Even allegations that appear to you to be frivolous or entirely false can result in CAS and/or criminal investigations. Many can also result in discipline by your school board and complaints to the Ontario College of Teachers or College of Early Childhood Educators.
- At the first hint of any allegation against you that could potentially lead to a criminal charge or investigation by CAS, you should refrain from responding to the allegation or making any statements about it and should instead immediately contact the provincial office of ETFO for advice and support.
- If you are still at the school, find a place in the school where you can make a private call to ETFO. Ask your administrator to allow you to use the office phone to make the call, if necessary.
During Office Hours
If you are contacted by the police or the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) regarding an allegation made against you:
- DO NOT participate in or consent to an interview.
- Make no statement to anyone regarding the allegation or charges.
- Say, “I am willing to co-operate but I am unable to comment until I contact my Federation and legal counsel.”
- Get the name, title and contact information for the police officer or CAS worker who has contacted you.
- Call Professional Relations Services (PRS) at 1-888-838-3836 or 416-962-3836 and state that your call is urgent.
You will be put in touch with the Professional Relations Services (PRS) counsellor on call who will provide you with the necessary assistance, including legal counsel, if deemed appropriate, and contact information for you to access additional support through your EAP if it is available in your board.
EMERGENCY LEGAL ASSISTANCE
What is an emergency?
- Police are on the scene or on the way.
- You are facing criminal charges for an alleged criminal offense directly related to the performance of your professional duties.
- You are at risk of being arrested and/or incarcerated.
What to do?
Call: 1-888-838-3836 or 416-962-3836
- A voice message will provide the necessary instructions to put your call through to an operator. You will be asked a few important questions.
- Where appropriate, a lawyer will be contacted and you will be connected immediately.
Working with School Staff
- When a member is accused of abuse or assault and is either reassigned or placed on leave by the school board, the school steward may be called upon to reassure staff colleagues that due process is being served and that the Federation is assisting the member.
- It is the responsibility of the principal, on behalf of the school board, to provide staff with specific advice for responding to student, parent and media enquiries relating to the colleague who is being investigated or accused of a criminal offense.
- You should refrain from providing any comments on the situation and should instead direct any such enquiries to the school principal.
- If you are contacted by anyone as a potential witness to the alleged conduct, you should contact PRS for advice.
Supporting Your Colleague
- The stress factors on a member facing allegations are enormous and should not be underestimated.
- If possible, staff should attempt to maintain regular communications with the member; this will help reduce the acute sense of isolation and despair, especially if the colleague has been suspended.
- Your colleague will have been advised not to make any statements about the allegations or the circumstances surrounding their case and you should be careful not to ask him or her any questions about the case or otherwise encourage a discussion about it. Making such statements, even in confidence, could be detrimental to your colleague’s case.
- If your colleague has not yet contacted PRS for assistance, you should urge them to do so immediately and remind them not to make any statements about the allegations until they have obtained advice from PRS.
- You should also remind your colleague that additional counselling and support are available through your EAP if it is available.
For further information contact your local ETFO president or Professional Relations staff in PRS at 416-962-3836 or 1-888-838-3836.