Edmonton

'I've lost my career': Teacher says Edmonton Public Schools didn't protect her from bully

Harassed and bullied by a colleague to the point she could no longer work, Edmonton teacher Erin Mitchell finally filed a complaint against him. She now believes the decision cost her her career.

Expert calls for oversight of complaint system after teacher spends years fighting for support

Erin Mitchell looks at mementoes from her teaching career, which spanned 15 years. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

Harassed and bullied by a colleague to the point she could no longer work, Edmonton teacher Erin Mitchell finally filed a complaint against him.

She now believes the decision cost her her career.

"My entire life has been taken away from me," said Mitchell, 42, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Everything that I used to have is gone. I've lost my career, I've lost my house, I've lost my pay."

For two years, Mitchell struggled to get support from Edmonton Public Schools, the Alberta Teachers' Association and her employee benefits provider.

"They kept telling me to go to the next organization for help," she told CBC News. "I ended up in a hamster wheel."

Mitchell's case illustrates a systemic problem, said Linda Crockett, an Edmonton social worker and founder of the Alberta Bullying Resource Centre.

Many Alberta teachers are harassed by colleagues or members of the administration, Crockett said. 

"It's happening more than we realize. The outcome is devastating for the teacher."

Crockett is calling for the school board, the union, and the insurance company to create a joint committee that would ensure a smooth process for teachers who file a complaint. 

'On pins and needles'

At the time she lodged her complaint, Mitchell had been a teacher for 15 years. She taught Grade 5 at Hardisty School on Edmonton's east side. 

One of her students was the son of a fellow teacher whose classroom was across the hall from hers.

The man and his wife, a teacher at another school, disagreed with Mitchell's approach and regularly criticized her work. 

She was called to the principal's office on several occasions to justify her teaching techniques.

By the end of the school year, I was in such bad shape with the repeated attacks on me that I filed the complaint.- Erin Mitchell

Mitchell recounted an intimidating incident where her colleague barged into her classroom, collected his son's belongings and left without speaking to her. 

"I couldn't do my job, I was so on pins and needles," she recalled. 

"I started questioning, 'What are my bullies going to think of this lesson?' I was always waiting for the fallout from a lesson or an email telling me what I did wrong." 

The stress took its toll on Mitchell, whose mental health began to deteriorate. 

"It affected every part of my life. By the end of the school year, I was in such bad shape with the repeated attacks on me that I filed the complaint."

Harmful behaviour

Edmonton Public Schools launched an internal investigation into the bullying in June 2017, and released its findings in October. CBC has obtained a copy of the report. 

The investigator found there was sufficient evidence of harassment and bullying from Mitchell's colleague.

"[His] behaviour may be considered harmful mistreatment of Ms. Mitchell by undermining her and her colleagues with vindictive and humiliating acts," the investigator wrote. 

The behaviour of the colleague's wife was described in the report as "disrespectful." 

CBC is not naming the couple in order to protect their son's identity.

Erin Mitchell, pictured here with colleague Joanne Threndyle in 2008, also worked as a teacher in Cambridge, Ont. (Supplied by Erin Mitchell)

Mitchell claims she was told by a school board official that her colleague's classroom would be moved away from hers. The change was never made.

"After this, I was really struggling to do my job," she said. "I could not feel any peace at work."

Edmonton Public Schools wouldn't comment on Mitchell's case, citing privacy reasons. 

By November 2017, the stress was causing Mitchell to be physically ill. She suffered migraines and regularly vomited on her way to work.

"One day, I just broke down," she recalled. "I walked out in the middle of a Tuesday morning and I never went back."

Mitchell's doctor diagnosed her with PTSD, and she went on short-term disability leave. 

'Get back to work'

Edmonton Public Schools assigned Mitchell a caseworker.

"He told me there was no problem, the child was no longer in my class, and to get back to work," Mitchell claims. "His response absolutely shocked me."

She reached out to the ATA, and with their support, met with her school board in January 2018. 

Mitchell claims her pleas for help fell on deaf ears.

"That's when something in me broke that can't be fixed," she said. "It was life-altering. I could not function. I knew I was in trouble."

Mitchell's PTSD symptoms worsened. She applied for long-term disability leave in February 2018. It meant a 30 per cent reduction in pay. 

She struggled to pay her bills while covering the cost of her therapy. Within months, she had to sell her house.

That fall she filed complaints with the ATA against the two teachers, and against her principal for not taking action.

The ATA rejected the complaint against the principal, but accepted the other two. Disciplinary hearings for the two teachers are set to take place this week. 

The ATA declined to answer CBC's questions, saying it would be inappropriate to comment while proceedings are ongoing.

Mitchell says she always wanted to be a teacher. She did her teaching practicum in 2003 in an Edmonton school. (Supplied by Erin Mitchell)

'Constantly fighting'

Mitchell also found herself in conflict with her benefits provider, the Alberta School Employee Benefit Plan (ASEBP).

"I was constantly fighting to stay on benefits, to prove myself, to prove my injury," she said.

In January of this year, Mitchell was asked by ASEBP to attend a psychiatric evaluation with a doctor of their choosing. 

In his report, the psychiatrist disagreed with Mitchell's multiple PTSD diagnoses made by other health professionals. He suggested she return to work in eight weeks. 

As a result, the benefits provider asked Mitchell to attend vocational training in order to find new work. 

She still had severe PTSD symptoms, and didn't attend. 

"I knew I couldn't, there was absolutely no way," she recalled. 

ASEBP wouldn't comment on Mitchell's case, but spokesperson Nikki Booth told CBC there is a process for members who disagree with their assessments.

I've already lost my house, I'm worried I'm going to lose everything.- Erin Mitchell

Mitchell opposed the findings in the psychiatrist's report, to no avail. 

She was found to be non-compliant by her benefits provider. 

Her benefits and pay were terminated in August.

"At this point, I have no income," she said. "I've already lost my house, I'm worried I'm going to lose everything."

She is still coming to terms with the loss of her career. 

"Teaching was my passion. Teaching became part of my identity," Mitchell said. 

"Being able to work with amazing kids and help them make their lives better was a gift. That was taken away."

About the Author

Josee St-Onge

Journalist

Josee St-Onge is a journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has also reported in French for Radio-Canada in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Reach her at josee.st-onge@cbc.ca