An Ontario substitute teacher who was cleared of abuse allegations is speaking out, suggesting that parents and students be held accountable for making false accusations.
"Something is terribly wrong here," said Susan Dowell, who has taught school for 15 years. "Children who do make false allegations – parents who make false allegations – what happens to them in the end?"
The complaint against Dowell came after she told a grade five boy not to throw away an uneaten banana at lunch. Dowell was on lunch room duty, during a one-day teaching assignment at R.L. Graham elementary school, in Keswick, Ont.
"I told him to eat it…or put it back in his lunch box and take it home. His parents paid good money for fruit like that for him to eat," said Dowell.
Dowell said the boy went home that night and complained, so one of his parents went to the school vice principal.
"The story that the parent heard and later told the administration…is that I had him go into the garbage to take out a squishy banana — eat garbage basically — and humiliated him in front of his friends."
Dowell said the incident happened right after she had enforced classroom rules, for a group of unruly students – the boy’s friends – that morning.
"They came in with an attitude immediately…like they're going to see how far they can go," said Dowell. "I know enough, in a situation like this, I'm not going to get into a battle with students…so I asked them to go to the office immediately."
Banana incident sparked investigation
The following week, while teaching at another school, she was suddenly sent home and told she was under investigation by Ontario's Children's Aid Society.
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"I was just shocked and confused," said Dowell. For over a week, she said, no one would tell her what she was accused of doing.
"For nine days. It feels like you're waiting to find out a diagnosis with cancer. It's crazy making…I was told not to speak to anyone."
Dowell later learned that after the parent complained about the banana incident, the vice principal talked to the other students she taught that day. She said the group of unruly students she’d sent to the office had plenty of complaints.
"Somehow all these children came up with all these incredible stories of how I had grabbed their wrists and I left red marks that apparently weren't showing later," said Dowell.
"Children are getting a lot more savvy these days. It used to be, 'make the occasional [substitute] teacher cry.' Now they know they can have you suspended."
Without talking to Dowell, the school immediately called the Children’s Aid Society, which it is required to do by law, when there is an allegation of abuse.
"I thought I'd be treated as a professional colleague and I'd be given the benefit of the doubt and at least gotten a phone call afterwards to ask what had happened, from my perspective."
Told to expect police
Dowell was removed from the board’s substitute teacher roster. Her union told her she might even be arrested.
"You are told police could come to your door any moment. What do you tell your family and friends? It's a horrible situation to be in, knowing that you're totally innocent," said Dowell. "I knew I had never been alone with a child. I never put my hands on a child…but it felt like I was guilty until proven innocent."
Dowell spent a month at home on partial pay, borrowing money to pay her bills, before the CAS concluded the allegation was unfounded.
"The Society…has determined that Ms. Dowell did not use excessive physical force with the students in her class or intentionally embarrass the student during her interactions with him in the lunchroom," read a letter to Dowell’s lawyer from the York Region Children’s Aid Society.
"The Society is not substantiating any concerns related to the alleged use of physical force or public humiliation by Ms. Dowell, nor would the Society be concerned should Ms. Dowell return to her occasional teaching position."
Dowell was then allowed to go back to work, but she still faces a probe by the school board, which is standard protocol when a complaint is made.
"These are separate investigations with different standards," said Christina Choo-Hum of the York Regional School Board. "We have a much closer eye and more detailed approach to our investigation."
When asked why a minor incident would lead to a full-blown investigation, Choo-Hum said, "If there is the slightest question [about a teacher] we err on the side of caution. It’s due diligence."
Choo-Hum said no one from the school or the board would comment on Dowell’s case, because it’s a personnel matter. She said the board does not keep statistics on how many complaints against teachers it investigates, or what the outcome is.
Nadia Ciacci, president of the union representing 1800 occasional teachers in the York district, said she’s seen false complaints multiply every year, from none three years ago, to eight this school year. Ciacci said all were unfounded.
"It’s devastating for teachers," said Ciacci, who said one has left the profession as a result. "It’s important to ensure the safety of students, of course, but also to ensure the safety of teachers. The message has to get out there – that this has to stop."
Jon Bradley, associate professor of education at McGill University, has studied false allegations against teachers. He knows one case where the teacher committed suicide. He said careers and lives are ruined, particularly for men falsely accused of sex abuse.
"It’s really a mess," he said. "We seem to be almost afraid. We seem to be saying – if a kid makes an accusation it must be true. Kids don’t lie. That’s the first thing we say – kids don’t lie."
He cited one case that should have been suspect from the start, because of how the nine-year-old girl characterized what happened.
"She said 'he leered at me suggestively.' I don’t know how many grade four students would use an expression like that."
No consequence for accusers
He said parents and children involved in false allegations don’t face any consequences, and they should.
"What’s really sad in this is we’ve got adolescents making terrible accusations against teachers and getting off scot-free with absolutely no penalty whatsoever," said Bradley.
Ciacci of the teacher’s union said she would like to see parents held legally responsible, perhaps through an amendment to Ontario’s Parental Responsibility Act.
"Look at the cost to taxpayers as well for the Children’s Aid involvement," she said. "Parents need to be held accountable."
Choo-Hum said there is no school board policy or standards for dealing with students who make false allegations.
"Students are dealt with on a case-by-case basis [at the school level]
," said Choo-Hum.
Dowell said she is confident the board investigation will also find she did nothing wrong. Regardless, though, she said she will never feel the same in the classroom.
"The next time I see a kid throw out a banana I am obviously not going to say anything. And next time I see belligerent, defiant behaviour – am I to turn the other cheek?" said Dowell.
""I feel very much I am damned if I do I am damned if I don’t."