By Helen Dolik
The introduction of the Protecting Students Act in September 2013 marks a defining moment in the history of the Ontario College of Teachers and ushers in an era of improved transparency and efficiency for students, teachers and parents.
The proposed legislation contains the most significant amendments to the Ontario College of Teachers Act since the College was formed in 1997. The changes reinforce the College’s continuing efforts to streamline its investigation and discipline processes.
The College will be allowed to fast-track complaints against teachers directly to the Discipline Committee and automatically revoke the teaching licence of a member found guilty of sexual abuse. It will open reinstatement hearings to the public and implement new timelines to help dispose of complaints. For example, the College will be allowed to proceed with a hearing should a member take more than 60 days to reply to a Notice of Hearing.
These are just some of the major changes contained in the Protecting Students Act that is en route to becoming law in Ontario.
“For students, it better protects their interest and safety,” says Francine Dutrisac, OCT, the College’s Director of Investigations and Hearings. “For teachers, the improved efficiencies ensure that matters are dealt with in a more timely matter. And for the public, it provides more transparency and therefore more evidence demonstrating that the College does indeed protect the public interest.
“This promotes the confidence that society demands of its education professionals. These are major changes and they provide an opportunity to make the legislation work better for the public interest.”
The changes are consistent with advice provided to the province by College Council in response to an independent review by former Ontario Chief Justice Patrick LeSage. The report — released in 2012 by the College — made 49 recommendations, many calling for the teacher regulatory body, the government and district school boards to improve reporting and information sharing.
THE PROPOSED LEGISLATION WILL BETTER SERVE THE PUBLIC INTEREST AND LEAD TO GREATER PUBLIC CONFIDENCE IN THE TEACHING PROFESSION.
Since the report, the College has acted on many of the recommendations, to the extent possible without changes in legislation or regulation. It has made significant strides in how it investigates complaints and shares information with the public. For example, in addition to publishing discipline decision summaries in its official publication, Professionally Speaking, the College made 600 full decisions available online in January 2012. All discipline decisions are now posted on the College website.
Timelines have been set for issuing and publishing Notices of Hearing, a legal document issued by the College and served on the member. It provides notice of the charges that will be heard by a College committee. They are available on the College’s website after the member is served.
More space has been added to hold concurrent hearings at the College and additional human resources will be allocated to assist with investigation and hearing matters. In October, the College launched a new online complaint form to improve accessibility at the intake stage.
While the College has acted immediately in some areas, more than 60 per cent of the recommendations require legislative changes to the Ontario College of Teachers Act.
On Sept. 18, Minister of Education Liz Sandals introduced the Protecting Students Act, or Bill 103, to address the remaining recommendations, saying it was an important step to ensure families continue to have confidence that their children are safe and protected in Ontario schools.
The Protecting Students Act will:
“We know that the vast majority of Ontario teachers do an excellent job supporting our students,” Sandals told the legislature. “Every day, they put their hearts and souls into their classrooms, and they share our commitment to giving their students the opportunity to learn and develop in a safe and respectful school community.
“However, in the rare circumstances where teacher discipline is required, families, parents, students and teachers deserve a fair and transparent process that maintains the public interest and protects our children. Together with the Ontario College of Teachers, we have a shared interest in maintaining public confidence in the investigation and disciplinary process, and have worked hard to reinforce public trust.”
During Bill 103’s second reading on October 1, Sandals acknowledged the leadership at the College, not only for asking LeSage to conduct the review but for moving quickly to address his recommendations.
Members of all provincial political parties have spoken in favour of the Protecting Students Act. The bill must pass through stages prescribed by the legislature, including readings, committee review and royal assent, to become law in Ontario.
“As context, this is the last part of the implementation of the recommendations from our independent review,” explains Michael Salvatori, OCT, the College’s Chief Executive Officer and Registrar. “We’re pleased with the introduction of the Act. But in the meantime, we’ve made a number of practice changes.”
The College has a duty to serve the public through its work in three primary areas: teacher licensing, program accreditation and member discipline. The College’s mandate states that it is required to receive and investigate complaints against members of the College and to deal with discipline and fitness to practice issues.
“The safety of students is at the heart of the public interest,” says Salvatori. “That’s one of the key elements when the public thinks about what inspires confidence — what allows them to trust — is that they know students are being kept safe.
“If the public looks at the changes, they’ll see more transparency and more information. They’ll see efficiencies such as shorter timelines and the College acting more swiftly in circumstances where a member hasn’t upheld the standards and a student has been at risk.”
The vast majority of College members are upholding the standards and have never had an investigation into their conduct. “Although each case is serious and one student being put at risk is too many, when you look at the number of disciplinary decisions and the number of members, you can see there’s good reason to trust in our teachers,” he says.
By proportion, teachers facing Discipline committees are relatively rare. The College has more than 237,000 members. In 2012, the Discipline Committee heard 41 cases.
The College’s Discipline Committee already revokes certificates of members found guilty of sexual abuse. The proposed legislation will formalize this current practice and make this penalty mandatory.
For members found guilty of sexual misconduct, the Protecting Students Act will also increase the waiting period to reapply for reinstatement from one to five years.
“It’s good for the public, it’s good for parents and it’s good for students.”
This does not guarantee that a member’s teaching licence will be reinstated.
Liz Papadopoulos, OCT, Chair of College Council, says the proposed legislation will better serve the public interest and lead to greater public confidence in the teaching profession.
“It’s good for the public, it’s good for parents and it’s good for students. There’s no doubt about it. And what’s good for them is also good for the teaching profession because it shines a positive light on the profession as well,” she says.
“The profession has an opportunity to show that it can put the public’s needs first.
“It demonstrates to the public that the profession recognized that changes had to be made. It shows a commitment to protecting the public interest.”
Papadopoulos says teachers deal with public and parental expectations, societal demands and school board needs, and this Act will put into law best practices and what’s in the best interest of students.
“It’s a good start and proof that when stakeholders work together and are moving in the same direction, you can achieve many positive outcomes,” she says.
Since beginning its review, Salvatori says the College has reached out to other regulators in Ontario interested in learning about the College’s process and, subsequently, the Protecting Students Act. They are talking to the College about the changes and looking at their own procedures and processes to serve the public interest.