Teachers' sin a school secret

By Kathryn Powley

Serious misconduct is kept off the public record by a little-known rule that muzzles media from reporting it

Sacked: Former primary school teacher Rachel Whitwell. Photo / Doug Sherring
Sacked: Former primary school teacher Rachel Whitwell. Photo / Doug Sherring

A physical education teacher at a Christian school has admitted to an inappropriate relationship with a 17-year-old student - one of 11 teachers found guilty of serious misconduct last year whose actions have been permanently suppressed.

The New Zealand Teachers Council has posted a warning advising the public and media it is illegal to publish details of disciplinary proceedings.

The warning is based on a little-known blanket suppression rule that has never been enforced, and is more draconian than the rules used by the criminal courts and most disciplinary bodies.

The Teachers Council Disciplinary Tribunal has suspended the PE teacher's practising certificate for three years, and has ordered him to tell prospective employers of the offence if he returns to teaching.

However because of the new warning we can't report his name. Nor can we report his school. Strictly speaking, the Herald on Sunday shouldn't be reporting the misconduct and suspension at all.

Teachers Council (Conduct) Rule 32(1), set in place under statute in 2004, means nobody may publish any details of a tribunal decision. That means any reports you've read in newspapers or seen on television are against the law.

Media organisations were unaware of this rule until late last year, when the crystal-clear warning was posted on the tribunal's website.

"No person or organisation may publish any report or account of a hearing, publish any part of any document, record, or other information produced at a hearing, and/or publish the name, or any particulars of the affairs, of any party or witness at a hearing."

That means communities may not be told about the two teachers found guilty of physically abusing students last year, another one found to have sexually abused a vulnerable student, six teachers who were found guilty of theft or fraud, one who tried to get a gang member to "cap" her principal, not to mention the PE teacher in the inappropriate relationship.

Some of these teachers were struck from the teachers' register last year, others were allowed to return to the classroom - but the community is barred from knowing about any of them.

Herald on Sunday editor Bryce Johns wrote this week to the tribunal's chairperson, Alison McAlpine, urging that action be taken to amend this rule and others.

He argues: "This prohibition is one of the heaviest shrouds of secrecy over any statutory disciplinary body in New Zealand, and indeed is comparable to Youth Court suppression rules in its breathtaking scope."

Education Minister Hekia Parata returned from a 4-week summer holiday on Friday, and is duty minister while Prime Minister John Key is in Antarctica this weekend.

She declined to answer questions about the suppression of teachers' disciplinary cases - her spokeswoman said that was being dealt with at an "operational level" by Teachers' Council director Peter Lind.

She did, however, confirm she had received the findings of a wide-ranging review of the Teachers Council, and the Government would consider those findings. That review is understood to deal with the anomalous blanket-suppression rule.

This week Lind advised the Herald on Sunday it could report any of the disciplinary findings, saying he would not take action against the paper.

He emailed a written assurance: "The Disciplinary Tribunal decisions are reported and anonymised unless the DT allows publication of the teacher's identity. The council will not take action if the details of a DT decision are reported."

On that basis, we are reporting details of the PE teacher's case but are not identifying him or his school.

The man was a former youth pastor who became head of PE at the decile-10 co-ed school. He had reluctantly become a mentor to a 17-year-old student when no one else at the school was available.

He was married and his wife had recently given birth. On their third mentoring meeting they were sitting in his car when she slid her hand up his leg to his crotch and he did not stop her. He traced his hands around her panty line. The physical contact lasted less than a minute and ended with both of them crying. He drove her home about 1.30am. He resigned as her mentor the next day.

The teacher told the tribunal he had allowed "inappropriate and sexualised touching to occur between us".

He continued: "I failed to put appropriate boundaries in place. I accept that (the student) has been hurt by my conduct."

The council found his actions did not justify de-registration.

Any person who knows the teacher's name and checks his details on the online teachers' register will find he has voluntarily agreed not to teach, pending completion of all inquiries. He has a full registration but a practising certificate that expired in January 2011.

The tribunal's rules mean all hearings are held in private and all parties are anonymised, unless the tribunal approves an application otherwise. Anybody may apply to the Disciplinary Tribunal for the PE teacher and his school to be named.

Lind said the reason for strict rules around publishing was because key witnesses were almost always children or young people who had been through a traumatic event. Anonymity was one way of assuring parents and innocent children they could come forward.

But Lind said he would support a change that allowed the council to impose suppression orders case by case, instead of details being suppressed automatically.

That would bring it in line with the Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal, whose rules state hearings involving doctors, nurses, midwives and 19 other medical professions must be public unless there are specific grounds to suppress. Decisions typically remove identifying features of complainants.

Penthouse pic case a matter of principle, says former teacher

Rachel Whitwell knows the Teachers Disciplinary Tribunal better than most.

The former teacher has been battling the tribunal since October 2009. That was when a newspaper published an article revealing she has posed nude for an adult website, Australian Penthouse.

In December 2010 a hearing was held, and in April 2011 an anonymised decision found her guilty of serious misconduct and she was de-registered - a decision that was widely reported by media around New Zealand and around the world.

Whitwell, who now lives on Waiheke Island and works as a graphic designer for an advertising agency, has appealed the decision.

"I've got my teacher's registration back, but I still need to go back for another hearing. If they take my registration again I'll go to the court. They're like a law of their own, doing their thing."

She was fighting because she had done nothing illegal. "It's for rights and principles rather than wanting to be a teacher."

Whitwell was in favour of the tribunal naming teachers found guilty of an offence.

"I've got a 7-year-old and I'd want to know if she had someone who'd done something against children working with her. Once you're found guilty by the Teachers Council I don't think there should be name suppression."

- Herald on Sunday

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