Wellington teacher's fitness to teach questioned after 'depressive episodes'

The teacher was arrested at school for an alleged breach of a protection order. Photo/file
The teacher was arrested at school for an alleged breach of a protection order. Photo/file

Whether or not a Wellington primary school teacher is fit to teach was the subject of a New Zealand Teachers' Disciplinary Tribunal hearing today.

The teacher, who has name suppression, suffered "major depressive episodes" after particularly stressful events, including being arrested in front of his colleagues at school for an alleged protection order breach.

Police later dropped the charge, but not before the teacher was made to spend a night in the cells for accidentally sending a text to an ex partner, saying "Hi?".

He told the tribunal he had not realised he was sending the message to his ex, who he was not allowed to contact due to a protection order. He had been archiving old phone records and noticed three numbers he had regular communication with, and decided to message each number to find out who they were.

Complaints Assessment Committee (CAC) lawyer Dale La Hood said the teacher's inability to cope mentally and emotionally after relationship breakups was a matter of "real concern" and questioned if he was "fit and proper to teach".

The teacher received convictions after the break up of his marriage a few years ago. The couple had children together and were still in contact, but though it was an "initially amicable" separation, it soon became toxic, leading to the teacher going to the vacant family home and etching abusive messages into the windows.

He was trespassed from the property and served with a protection order, but continued to go and sit outside the house, which his ex wife was no longer living in.

He has been convicted of threats, trespass, wilful damage, and breaching a protection order.

The teacher began a relationship with a new woman a short time later, which he thought was a serious one with a long-term future.

"It came as quite a shock to find her in bed with some else one afternoon when I went around with flowers to surprise her," he said to the tribunal.

The woman also took out a protection order against him after he threatened to come into her house one day and forcibly take back gifts he had given her.

While the teacher was being investigated by the CAC, he was placed on paid leave and had conditions imposed on him, including that he was not to be in contact with students while he was off work.

But when a student contacted him on Facebook, he "felt obliged to politely reply as I didn't want to come across, as a teacher at her school, as being rude or aloof".

He had not taken the conditions to mean he was to have "nil contact" with students.

He had brief Facebook conversations with the student on two occasions when she initiated contact, but the nature of the conversations was not an issue, simply the fact the conversations happened.

The teacher told the council his behaviour around the break ups stemmed from his lack of life skills and his inability to control his anxiety.

He has since begun court-mandated anger management counselling which he said was "invaluable" in providing him with personal insight and the knowledge of how to "safeguard" himself in the future.

He said he had since been through another break up but while it had saddened him, he did not exhibit any of the same behaviour as the previous two, and was still good friends with the woman.

But La Hood was not convinced the teacher's ability to cope with his latest break up meant he was going to be okay if another relationship ended in an upsetting way. He questioned whether the teacher's mental health and ability to teach and be around students would be at risk if the teacher was to suffer another shock like he did when discovering his ex-partner's infidelity.

La Hood said the teacher's text message to his ex and the Facebook contact with the student were not in themselves actions that reached the threshold of serious misconduct, but said the accumulation of the actions along with the teacher's convictions did.

"It's about reaction to stress," he said.

"There's real concern that he simply isn't in a position to react appropriately to a stressful situation."

Tribunal chairwoman Theo Baker noted there was no indication the teacher suffered any outbursts around his colleagues or students.

The tribunal reserved its decision.

- NZ Herald

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