Professionally SpeakingThe Magazine of the Ontario College of Teachers
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Chair provides insights into discipline process

rofessional discipline is a complex issue, often misunderstood if understood at all. In this column, the Chair of Council explains the College's complaints, investigations and hearings process.

by Don Cattani

Parents must have confidence that classrooms are safe and that the teaching profession deals seriously with members found guilty of professional misconduct. Likewise, members accused of professional misconduct must have opportunities for full procedural fairness, such as the right to give full answer and defence, to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise and to have the matter dealt with in a timely manner.

The College receives about 1,500 expressions of concern annually. Most don't appear to relate to professional misconduct – the College's responsibility – and should be raised elsewhere, usually with the employer. In fact, fewer than 20 per cent end up as formal, signed complaints.

When a formal complaint is initiated, the College becomes in essence two separate entities. The Registrar directs College prosecutors to argue the public's case, while College Council members assume the role of judges. Each operates independently, using legal counsel from different firms. Defence counsel represents the member.

Staff carries out a preliminary investigation of the complaint. A panel of Council's Investigation Committee, consisting of one appointed and two elected members, decides whether to dismiss the complaint, resolve it by alternative means or refer it to a discipline hearing.

“Few complaints actually merit further scrutiny at a discipline hearing.”

The panel can dismiss any complaint it considers frivolous, vexatious or an abuse of process, and order staff not to take any further action. The panel can also decide that, although there will be no further action, the member involved should be cautioned against future similar conduct.

Lastly, the panel can decide that the complaint must be resolved at a hearing.

Few complaints actually merit further scrutiny at a discipline hearing. Those that do, however, undergo a pre-hearing conference with a member of the Discipline Committee. This enables each side in the dispute to seek clarity or resolution and to get a sense of how a discipline panel might view the evidence and what penalty might be considered, should there be a finding of guilt.

At a discipline hearing, another three-person panel, consisting of one appointed and two elected Discipline Committee members, presides, guaranteeing additional review by three more members of Council, since no member of Council can serve on both the Discipline and Investigations committees.

If, based on the evidence, the panel decides that the member is guilty, it will decide on a penalty. Is a reprimand or suspension combined with counselling and instruction adequate to protect the public interest? Or should the member be removed from the profession entirely? The committee weighs the evidence in each case and rules accordingly.

In the end, seven different members of Council will have reviewed the case in three separate and independent stages before a decision is rendered. To repeat, these are not College staff decisions. Council members alone – elected by you or appointed by provincial cabinet – issue findings and rule on penalty.

The panel may order the publication of discipline hearing results in Professionally Speaking to give you an idea of the outcomes of complaints that will inform your professional practice.

“Council members alone … issue findings and rule on penalty.”

While we are proud of the work we do in investigations and discipline, no procedures are so unimpeachable that they must remain static.

Any judicial structure that purports to dispense fair results should be examined on a regular basis – and that is occurring as you read this column.

The Registrar has initiated briefings to seek input on how decisions made in public at the College are made available to the public. The Discipline Committee is also examining its procedures with regard to publication. We trust the ensuing clarity and renewal will engender the support of the profession and the confidence of the public.