Teachers would face criminal checks every 5 years under changes to N.S. law
Recent criminal cases involving teachers highlight need for stricter protocols, says education minister
Nova Scotia's education minister plans to bring in stricter reporting protocols to ensure officials know when teachers face criminal investigations, a move that comes after a recent series of assault and sexual assault charges involving educators in the province.
Zach Churchill said the legislation, which he plans to introduce in the spring, will include an annual requirement for teachers to disclose whether or not they're facing criminal allegations, along with mandatory criminal record checks every five years.
"The fact that we've had several incidents that are deeply concerning happen in such a short period of time clearly demonstrates to me that we have to do more from a policy perspective and from a legislative perspective to mitigate any risk," said Churchill.
As it stands, teachers in Nova Scotia are only obligated to have one criminal record check at the beginning of their career.
The current self-reporting process for teachers is more complicated. Policies vary from region to region, but most require that employees contact the director of human resources if they are subject to a criminal investigation, charges or conviction.
A CBC News investigation has found that Nova Scotia's education centres do not consistently track the number of teachers who self-report. In some regions, the information is not tracked at all.
In the system's best interest?
The case of Derek Stephenson, a 42-year-old Cole Harbour teacher charged with assaulting a student, highlighted gaps in the reporting system. He had prior domestic assault charges that school officials knew about, but elected members of the former Halifax Regional School Board did not.
"What I've taken from that case is an example of a weakness in our system that we need to address," said Churchill.
While the minister said the majority of teachers are "incredible," he believes a new law is necessary.
"I don't think this is going to be onerous. MLAs for example have to submit reports every year on our investments, our business dealings to make sure that we're not in conflict with any decisions that we make," he said.
"I think having that self-reporting mechanism in place for teachers will help create a system that is safer and I think it's in the interest of everybody in the school system."
5 teachers facing charges
There are currently five Nova Scotia teachers involved in serious court cases, including Stephenson. The English teacher at Cole Harbour District High School is expected to appear in Dartmouth provincial court Wednesday facing allegations he pushed a student into the wall and the floor on Oct. 3.
Paul James O'Toole, 55, an art teacher at Musquodoboit Rural High School, will also answer to assault charges this week in Shubenacadie provincial court. His case involved a 17-year-old student in September and swiftly went to restorative justice. If he meets the court's terms, the case will be dismissed and O'Toole will not have a criminal record.
The other three teachers face sex charges. David Harrison, 39, has been charged with sexual assault, sexual exploitation and luring a child between September 2013 and August 2015, when he taught at Northeast Kings Education Centre in Canning. He will be back in court on Dec. 18.
In Cape Breton, Lawrence Robert Summerell, 51, faces 12 sex charges, including four counts of sexual assault, four of luring a child under the age of 18 and three of sexual exploitation. He has also been charged with possession of child pornography. The alleged incidents happened between January and June of 2017 when Summerell was a teacher at Memorial High School in Sydney Mines. He is expected to enter a plea on Jan. 22 in Sydney provincial court.
Jason David Pentecost is scheduled to stand trial next June on three counts of child luring. The teacher at Sydney Academy high school allegedly committed the offences, which involved two females aged 16 and 17, between Feb. 28 and June 10 of last year.
Legislation catches union off guard
Paul Wozney, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, agrees the number of high-profile cases this year is "exceptional," but he doesn't believe that justifies a "knee-jerk decision" by the province.
In fact, he was floored to learn about the plans for new legislation from CBC News.
"What we really need in this circumstance is to make smart decisions in the best interest of student safety — not simply make changes that win you political points for optics," Wozney said.
"We have political people making decisions about very real things that impact students and teachers in classrooms and it needs to be done thoughtfully and considerately."
University requires 2 record checks
Students in the bachelor of education program at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax are required to have two criminal record checks — one when they apply and one when they graduate. The policy was implemented in 2002, and has prevented a few students from entering the classroom, according to Prof. Robert Berard.
"In many cases, people who prey on vulnerable populations try to find work in areas where there are vulnerable populations," he said.
"It's disturbing and I'm pleased that we have at least some mechanism and have had some mechanisms since 2002 to determine whether we should be able to admit students, whether we dare place students in schools for practice teaching."
Berard said the reporting process for teachers once they're certified in Nova Scotia has not been clearly defined or understood by the public.
"I think it's always been a tradition in all sorts of institutions to try to handle things internally if you can. Sometimes it involves a decision on the part of the school board to remove a teacher from the classroom and bring the teacher into the main office to be employed in some other type of activity," he said.
"I think everybody who has been involved with the system knows of cases where it has happened, and I think that we're just slow picking up on the idea that the problem may be bigger than we thought that it was and that we should be a lot more vigilant."