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Former Alberta teacher reprimanded, fined $4,000 for calling student homophobic slur

Donald Lee, 63, a former band and religion teacher at Glenmary Catholic School in Peace River, was found guilty on two charges of unprofessional conduct at a three-day Alberta Teachers’ Association disciplinary hearing last week.

Former band and religion teacher in Peace River found guilty on 2 charges of unprofessional conduct

Donald Lee, a former religion and band teacher, says the investigation was biased and brought to light by a "motley collection of teenage gossips." (Donald Lee/Facebook)

A former Alberta school teacher who used a homophobic slur against a student in a Halloween costume three years ago will get a written reprimand and $4,000 in fines.

Donald Lee, 63, a former band and religion teacher at Glenmary Catholic School in Peace River, was found guilty on two charges of unprofessional conduct at a three-day Alberta Teachers' Association disciplinary hearing last week.

The hearing heard that in the fall of 2018, Lee used a homophobic slur when questioning a male student who was wearing a female pirate costume for a Halloween assembly. 

The charges related to Lee's disrespect for his student in using the slur and his refusal to accept responsibility for the remark. He had pleaded not guilty to both.

'Not an isolated incident'

The slur was part of a pattern of unprofessional behaviour, presenting officer Konni DeGoeij told the hearing.

Lee often imposed his views on students and humiliated them with discriminatory comments that had a damaging "ripple effect" on the entire school, DeGoeij said.  

"Contrary to what the teacher would like you to believe, this was not an isolated incident," she told the hearing. 

DeGoeij recommended Lee receive two written reprimands and be fined a total of $3,500.

In its final decision on Friday, the committee imposed fines of $4,000 and said it will issue "severe" written reprimands to Lee.

Lee has 120 days to pay the fines in full or be declared ineligible for ATA membership. 

There seems to be the stereotype that he is just some angry Catholic homophobe and he's not,- James Kitchen, lawyer representing Donald Lee

He has not responded to requests for comment. His lawyer, James Kitchen, told the hearing his client is apologetic.

Kitchen said the allegations were "hyperbolic" and the financial punishment too severe. 

"There seems to be the stereotype that he is just some angry Catholic homophobe and he's not," Kitchen said. "He takes great exception to that," noting that Lee plans to never teach again. 

The hearing heard that on Nov. 6, 2018, Lee confronted a Grade 10 student about his costume in front of his classmates in the band room.

In a subsequent meeting with the school principal, Lee suggested that it was a teacher's duty to inform students that homosexuality is "a sin condemned by the word of God," the hearing heard.

The teenager at the centre of the complaint was among several students who testified at the hearing. He said Lee's remark made him uncomfortable and afraid to go to school.

Another student said Lee often made jokes using the same slur "as the punchline." 

Kitchen said his client's views may be considered "archaic," but he was using the word in reference to the costume, not the student.

Lee had an impeccable 18-year record as an educator, he said. 

"Does he hold beliefs as a Catholic about sexuality? Of course he does, as do millions of other Catholics, but that doesn't mean that those beliefs turn him into some sort of bully," Kitchen said.

Kitchen said steep fines against Lee are not necessary as a deterrent since the issue of discrimination against LGBTQ students had "largely been dealt with." 

He said Lee had come to view the investigation as a "witch hunt."

"He's come to learn that, as a Catholic, he's often not treated fairly if he expresses any of his sincerely held religious beliefs," Kitchen said.

'No mitigating factors' 

DeGoeij, the presenting officer, is the ATA official charged with investigating the case.

She said Lee was a "seasoned teacher" who should have known his professional responsibilities. Instead, she argued, Lee created a culture of fear in his classroom and "cast aspersions" on the investigation.

"Lee would have you believe that his strong Catholic beliefs were a mitigating factor," she said.  

"I submit, there are no mitigating factors."

Lee responded to the allegations with a letter shared with the ATA investigative committee, which was entered as an exhibit.  In it, Lee apologized for his "poor choice of word" but described the allegations as a "subjective fantasy." 

He characterized the students who brought the allegations forward as a "motley collection of teenage gossips."

"My own principal, superintendent, even my professional association, all aligned against me," Lee wrote. 

"I saw no purpose in taking part in this biased investigation of one word." 

Lee insisted that being against homosexuality was not his personal belief, but was actually the word of God himself.- Testimony of David Amiot, school principal

According to Lee's personal website, he started teaching at the school in 2013.

He handed in his resignation at Glenmary in December 2018 and stopped teaching the following February.  

A formal investigation into the fall 2018 incident began after students shared a Snapchat post about it and a parent lodged a formal complaint with David Amiot, the school principal.

During his testimony Wednesday, Amiot said Lee was unwilling to follow the school's inclusion policy. 

"Lee [said] the word itself was not degrading, and was actually quite acceptable because the word had been used to describe homosexuals in an objective way throughout periods of history," Amiot said.

"Lee insisted that being against homosexuality was not his personal belief, but was actually the word of God himself."  

The hearing heard that Lee appeared at a meeting with the school superintendent with a briefcase of religious teachings in hand. He told her their conversation might appear in his self-published book. (Donald Lee/cominghomespirit.com)

Betty Turpin, superintendent of the Holy Family Catholic Regional Division, said Lee later told her that school officials were "watering down" their faith and forcing him to promote homosexuality.

He was condescending and appeared at their meeting with a briefcase with bible passages inside, Turpin told the hearing.

Lee also suggested that he might write about their exchange in his self-published book, The Band Director's Lessons About Life, described on his personal website as a collection of modern-day religious parables. 

Amiot told the hearing the school is committed to inclusion.

"Every human person is a unique and irreplaceable gift created by our loving God," he said "That's everyone. No exception."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Wallis Snowdon

Journalist

Wallis Snowdon is a digital journalist with CBC Edmonton. Originally from New Brunswick, her journalism career has taken her from Nova Scotia to Fort McMurray. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca

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