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Abusive teachers could be 'falling through gaps' in current system: Alberta education minister

Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange is on a mission to make classrooms safer for students by toughening the disciplinary process for Alberta teachers and advocating for a national registry that would flag problem teachers to potential employers.

A national teachers' registry will help keep students safe, says Adriana LaGrange

Efforts from Education Minister Adriana LaGrange have prompted a review of the benefits of a national registry for teachers. (Gagliardi Photography/Shutterstock)

In 2014, a Manitoba teacher sent vulgar and demeaning comments via Facebook to a student and her mother. He went on to teach in Nunavut where his "aggressive and unprofessional behaviour" finally cost him his Ontario licence — almost six years later, according to the decision from the discipline committee of the Ontario College of Teachers.

In 2016, a B.C. teacher was stripped of his licence, 40 years after being admonished by his then-employer for allegedly engaging in sexual activities with teenage students, according to provincial documents. In those four decades, he continued working as a teacher both in B.C. and abroad. 

And in the fall of 2019, Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange was so upset about a Calgary teacher who inappropriately touched multiple preteen students that she overruled his two-year suspension and permanently yanked his teaching credentials.

Thus began LaGrange's mission to make classrooms safer for students by toughening the disciplinary process for Alberta teachers and advocating for a national registry that would flag problem teachers to potential employers.

Because the disciplinary process varies by jurisdiction and the country currently has no central repository of serious abuses by teachers, "there could be people falling through the gaps," LaGrange told CBC News in an interview. 

"We want to make sure that our parents and our children that attend our schools know that they're safe and that we're looking out for their best interest," LaGrange said.

"When we have these unprofessional conduct situations … some of them are just heartbreaking." 

'Moral obligation'

In March 2020, LaGrange wrote her provincial counterparts urging them to support her efforts to get the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) to address teacher discipline.

"As Ministers of Education, we have a moral obligation to ensure our children and our staff are safe," LaGrange wrote in a March 6, 2020, letter to Nova Scotia's then-education minister Zach Churchill. The letter was obtained by CBC News.

"It is essential that we work together, across provinces, to ensure those who abuse their position of authority and trust over our students are not welcomed in any classroom across the country again."

Her campaign resulted in CMEC tasking a committee to research creating a national registry of teachers who had been disciplined or lost their licence. LaGrange said the committee's recommendations are to be released soon. 

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Disciplinary proceedings vary by jurisdiction

In Canada, teaching certificates are governed by territory or provincial education ministers like LaGrange. 

Disciplinary proceedings, on the other hand, vary between jurisdictions, with some handled by teacher associations and others by separate regulatory bodies such as the Ontario College of Teachers. The process can also vary between public and private schools — in Alberta, for example, issues in the latter are handled by the provincial government.

But, "this information is not being tracked," in that there is no central location where that repository of information can be found, said LaGrange.

In November 2021, LaGrange introduced Bill 85, a 'students first' act that targets teacher discipline in Alberta. (Government of Alberta)

The Alberta Teachers' Association (ATA) recently began posting decisions from disciplinary hearings, dating back to 1997, that resulted in a member's suspension or loss of licence. 

Under LaGrange, new legislation has been passed that will see Alberta Education creating a searchable online registry detailing the professional standing of all Alberta-certified teachers and teacher leaders. With that, Alberta will join provinces such as B.C., Saskatchewan and Ontario in publicly sharing details of investigations into teacher improprieties. 

The ATA was comfortable with the call for a provincial database.

"We, ourselves, were looking for ways to modernize and update our discipline processes," said ATA president Jason Schilling.

Potential issues with a national database

But Schilling questioned the need for a national database.

The ATA already shares its recommendations with the Canadian Teachers' Federation about its teachers who are to be suspended or lose their licence. And once a teacher is suspended by the ATA, they almost assuredly will never teach again, he said.

"If you're suspended from the association, you're done," he said.

The potential flaws of a national database are also noted by Ken Brien, an associate professor of education at the University of New Brunswick. The risk of false allegations and the impact on teacher reputations shouldn't be ignored, he said.

Plus, Brien noted, "the people you are trying to capture with this, they could probably find ways around it.''

Ken Brien, an associate professor of education at the University of New Brunswick, is seen in June 2020. One potential issue with a national teachers database is the risk of false allegations, Brien said. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

In addition, LaGrange said there are potential privacy concerns on top of legislative changes that would likely need to take place in some provinces. That being said, other professions such as lawyers make their disciplinary findings public. 

When it comes to the U.S., the majority of states told CBC News they rely on a clearinghouse called NASDTEC (National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification) to flag inapposite behaviour that took place in their country, as well as Canada. 

But according to NASDTEC, currently, just the Ontario College of Teachers submits disciplinary documents. 

Reporting suspected criminal behaviour

A national registry is only one aspect of what Alberta is seeking.

There are also concerns about who is conducting the disciplinary hearings — and why information about suspected criminal behaviour isn't being reported to police.

In December, LaGrange announced plans to remove teacher discipline from the ATA's mandate. 

Part of her motivation was a revelation that Calgary teacher Michael Gregory admitted during a 2006 disciplinary hearing that he had "mentally and physically abused his students." In February 2021 — 15 years later — Gregory was charged with 17 counts of sexual assault and sexual exploitation involving six former students. He killed himself not long after the charges were laid.

The ATA is not under any obligation to report potential criminal behaviour on the part of teachers to police.

"No other province has the teachers' union in charge of disciplining its members," said Jonathan Denis, a Calgary lawyer and former Alberta solicitor general who has filed a $40-million lawsuit on behalf of three individuals who say they were among Gregory's victims.

"I was shocked … I would have thought that there would have been a proper process in place many many years ago," Denis said. 

"Our No. 1  goal is that nothing like this ever happens to a student again … but more importantly that there is a proper process in place."

Feasibility of national registry examined in 2005

LaGrange's mission is not dissimilar from that of a previous Alberta education minister.

In 2014, then-education minister Jeff Johnson overturned four ATA disciplinary decisions. In one case, he replaced a four-year suspension with a lifetime ban for a male teacher who gave a female student an "assignment" to do in the shower and message him the details afterward while he masturbated.

Former Alberta education minister Jeff Johnson overturned four Alberta Teachers' Association disciplinary decisions in 2014. (CBC)

In a September 2014 letter sent to then-ATA president Mark Ramsankar, Johnson wrote: "I believe you would agree that it is alarming to learn that a teacher who failed to attend an ATA convention is given a harsher penalty than one found to have supplied minors with alcohol or who had an inappropriate relationship with a student."

Even the current review by the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) repeats history.

In 2005, at the request of its members, a feasibility study for a national registry was done by the same committee that is looking into the issue today.

Legislative changes, costs are prohibitive: report

Gerald Galway, dean of education at Newfoundland's Memorial University, was the province's assistant deputy education minister and was involved in those 2005 discussions. Galway said the idea was to ensure uncertified teachers couldn't "fly under the radar" and move to a new province. There were safeguards in place but individuals could still conceal their past, he told CBC in an email.

The final report advised against establishing a national registry, citing complicating factors of legislative changes and cost while noting that provisions for sharing the information were already in place. 

LaGrange said she knows the national registry might not come to fruition but said Canada's ministers have the same collective goal in mind: Safety of kids in school.

"We really need to make sure that our processes are up-to-date, that they're accountable, transparent and that we can assure our parents and the public that we're doing everything possible to deal with these situations."

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