False Accusations: A Growing Fear in the Classroom
Male role models are becoming increasingly scarce in Canadian classrooms, and the demographics indicate that the current low numbers will continue to decline. New teachers are quite prepared to take up the pedagogical issues raised by changing standards and a changing demographic; however, the spectre of violence and false accusations adds a level of danger that is truly frightening – the former to female student teachers, the latter primarily to males. It is reported that one in seven male teachers has been falsely suspected of inappropriate contact with students, and Canadian school systems do not have procedures in place to respond quickly and to protect the reputation of those who are wrongly accused. While the safety of students must be paramount, the rights of teachers need to be protected as well.
“Where are the male teachers?” Male role models are becoming increasingly scarce in Canadian classrooms, and the demographics indicate that the current low numbers will continue to decline. While general statistics are open to flux and are often several years behind reality, it is clear that male teachers in elementary and middle schools will soon be a thing of the past. Secondary schools fair a tad better, but males are an increasing minority within the teaching ranks at all levels. Generally speaking, the male-to-female ratio in elementary schools is 20-to-80; in secondary schools, 35-to-65. Whatever data one teases out, there is no question: our classrooms are increasingly dominated by female teachers.
Henri Fournier, a teacher with the Commission scolaire Grandes-Seigneurs in Quebec who has an impeccable 30-year employment history, has had his life turned upside down by a set of circumstances straight out of a B-grade movie. Several students (all girls between 8 and 12) accused Mr. Fournier of inappropriate touching. Acting with dispatch so as to protect the children, Mr. Fournier’s school board placed him on unpaid leave. He was investigated by the local police, charged by the Crown Prosecutor, and sent to trial.
As part of this shrinking minority myself, I watch with concern the declining numbers of males who select elementary education as a career path.
Almost two years would elapse between the laying of the charges (ready for this – 34 separate charges!) and the commencement of the court trial. During this time, one can imagine the chatter on the Internet and the emails that winged back and forth. The climate in the school was tense and – notwithstanding overt attempts at privacy – everyone knew the identity of the girls and what Mr. Fournier was alleged to have done. Throughout this ordeal, while proclaiming his innocence, Mr. Fournier was supported by his union; but at the same time he was the object of all manner of scurrilous innuendo and talk within his community.
There are those who may look at this situation and be pleased with the swiftness of the action. A predator had been caught, and the lives of so many girls saved from eternal harm. Even though a couple of the girls recanted their stories prior to formal court proceedings, and the justice system was grinding slowly, Mr. Fournier was going to get his just rewards.
One small difficulty: Madame Justice Odette Perron threw out every charge! Further, in a somewhat scathing rebuttal, she noted that all of the accusations were without foundation, many of the so-called statements were contradictory, and she could find no fault at all with Mr. Fournier.
Then, in what can only be described as educational decision-making run amuck, Mr. Fournier was reinstated by his school board (no back pay, by the way) and assigned as a teacher to the same school where many of the accusing girls were still students.
Whatever the formal ruling, Mr. Fournier is branded. No charges were ever laid against the minors who made false police reports, no disciplinary action was meted out to overzealous officers or educational administrators, and the insult of reassigning Mr. Fournier to an environment where his former accusers have free and unfettered reign to continue the gossip borders on harassment. In a final irony, a labour arbitrator recently ruled that Mr. Fournier is entitled to no back salary or benefits, and there will be no compensation for his additional legal expenses.
Status of Male Teachers
Such stories concern my students. As a teacher of teachers, I have a special interest in the status of male elementary teachers. As part of this shrinking minority myself, I watch with concern the declining numbers of males who select elementary education as a career path, and I view with sadness the kind of impact cases such as Mr. Fournier’s have on my education students.
At McGill’s Faculty of Education, the percentage of males opting for elementary teacher training rests, now, around five percent. This number has been slowly declining – from about 20 percent over my tenure with the Faculty. Within the broad Anglophone school network, many elementary schools are now places of a single gender. Many factors contribute to falling numbers of male teachers (lack of merit pay, stifling administrative regulations, double standards, and the like), but the sad reality is that the committed male classroom practitioner is slowly becoming a thing of the past. From the principal to the custodian, it is often the case that all in-school staff are female. To highlight this issue, it is not at all unusual for school administrators to call our Student Teaching Office and plead for a male student teacher.
There is no question that classroom teaching today is extremely challenging. Internal educational pressures are mounting as more and more special needs students are integrated into regular classrooms, and instructional materials are found wanting as increasing numbers of immigrant students bring diverse cultural histories into play within the close confines of the classroom environment. It is also fraught with danger. On a regular basis, as aptly documented in a CTV/W5 report “Unsafe to Teach” released in 2005, teachers are being verbally and physically assaulted, and increasingly subjected to false accusations of inappropriate behaviour. More and more teachers are leaving the classroom for other careers.
My students – both male and female – are quite prepared to take up the pedagogical issues raised by changing standards and a changing demographic; however, the spectre of violence and false accusations adds a level of danger that is truly frightening – the former to female student teachers, the latter primarily to males.
As there is no central database documenting false accusations, and as many cases are reported only at a local level without receiving any kind of national attention, attempts to accurately appraise the number, degree, and kind of false (and real) accusations of inappropriate behaviour against male teachers has been a daunting task. Internet organisations, such as “menteach.org”, have tried to report such cases, and random searches of various news databases do tease out interesting human interest cases. However, formal attempts to quantify the issue have been frustrated by a lack of information.
However, thanks to a ground-breaking study by researchers from the Northern Canadian Centre for Education & the Arts (NORCCREA) at Nipissing University entitled “A Report on the Professional Journey of Male Primary-Junior teachers in Ontario (Gosse, Parr, & Kristolaitis, 2010), we have an initial benchmark figure. Approximately 13 percent of the male teachers in their study – one in seven – reported that they had been falsely suspected of inappropriate contact with pupils. This is a significant number and, for the first time, quantifies the reality faced by male teachers.*
Despite the lack of national data, it is clear that classroom teachers across Canada are being falsely accused in growing numbers. Local teacher unions and other educational authorities are struggling to identify such incidents and, at the same time, appear ill-equipped to develop realistic procedures and plans that safeguard due process and the reputations of those falsely accused. Since we are not tracking the increasing level of violence (both verbal and physical) against teachers, it is likely that these incidents are under-reported, and we tend to ignore the extremely high dropout rate of teachers who leave the career path after less than a decade of experience. We don’t know how many leave because they have been falsely accused, or because they see others losing their reputations and careers because of lies, rumours, and innuendo.
There is no question that the children must be protected; any adult who does indeed act in an inappropriate way must be drummed out of the school system. But here comes the conundrum: how are the rights of innocent teachers protected?
Although schools, school boards, unions, and other educational stakeholders are scrambling to develop and implement policies, this is a complex issue on many levels. There is a general assumption that any student accusation simply must be true (kids don’t lie), and this is especially true if the accusation is made by a female student against a male teacher. The rights of children (often couched in the phrase “we must protect the students”) appear to take precedence over the rights of teachers. There is no question that the children must be protected; any adult who does indeed act in an inappropriate way must be drummed out of the school system. But here comes the conundrum: how are the rights of innocent teachers protected? And what action is taken against students and their parents who are shown to lie? In far too many cases, there is no “right to privacy” or “right to innocence before judgment”; rather, there appears to be a rush to judgment with little regard for the impact on the falsely accused individual or the collateral impact upon the school and other professionals within that environment.
False accusations are being made against both male and female teachers. These reports often take one of two broad avenues. In the first, and less severe, the teacher is accused by one or more students of being “unfair” or “picking on” a student. These accusations are usually wrapped around words such as “harassment” or “culture”. The second set of false accusations levelled against teachers is far more serious and might be broadly termed “sexual”. In these cases, students accuse a teacher of various forms of touching and/or other inappropriate communication.
Now, let’s be very clear on two fronts; some students lie, and some teachers act inappropriately. With millions of pupils in schools and tens of thousands of teachers in classrooms, inappropriate and questionable speech and actions are bound to occur. In many cases, such actions can be easily explained by the close quarters and natural connectedness between teacher and pupil. On the other hand, teachers do cross the line. Similarly, not every story out of the mouths of adolescents rings true. Incidents can be stretched and expanded and, in a growing number of cases, simply made up.
To help my male students prepare for an environment in which the usual student-teacher interactions can be misconstrued – intentionally or unintentionally – I have developed a list I call the “Six Nevers”. They illustrate how the threat of false accusations can interfere with the development of a warm, caring relationship between students and teachers, and why males considering teaching as a profession might have second thoughts.
- Never touch a student!
- Never be alone with a student, and never in a closed classroom!
- Never use language/tone that can be interpreted as anything but professional.
- Never use Facebook/Internet to chat or communicate with students!
- Never maintain an outside school association with a student/family.
- Never allow your guard to falter!
A senior administrator characterized Ron Mayfield as an energetic and experienced teacher who related well to his students; his death was tragic. Mr. Mayfield was accused by one of his students of a physical assault. In line with school policy, he was immediately suspended (with pay) and police and youth services were notified.
While various investigations were carried out by many agencies, Mr. Mayfield was left on the sidelines. He was not kept abreast of actions and was left open to the rumour mill that swirled about in the school and the community. Unlike many such investigations, this one moved quickly and, within two weeks, it was clear that there was no substance to the charges. Further, the 13-year-old student had recanted his accusation.
Unfortunately, no one in any of the agencies thought to inform Mr. Mayfield. Sadly, he committed suicide. While it may never be proven, his family (and many colleagues) share the view that Mr. Mayfield sought this drastic release because he could not bear the stain of a false accusation and the thought that his whole career was on the line.
What is the punishment for students who lie about teachers? In today’s Canada, little is done in a systematic manner to hold youth accountable for their false narratives. In case after case, parents leap to the defence of apparently “abused” children and, when the dust has settled, offer no compensation to the aggrieved teacher. This skewed arrangement puts more emphasis on unsupported adolescent narratives than on verifiable facts.
In some isolated cases, individual teachers are fighting back. Teachers, both male and female, are personally resorting to the courts to seek redress from parents and school officials. In a small number of U.S. cases, the teachers have prevailed and been awarded significant amounts. Closer to home, falsely accused Quebec teacher David Fletcher, in a precedent setting case, was awarded damages in the $70,000 range. Nonetheless, far too many falsely accused teachers are on their own as they attempt to deal with legal and educational systems that do not have procedures in place to deal swiftly and fairly with student accusations.
The history of school-based abuse is a clouded one. The mainstream press is filled with recollections of religious transgressions and sexual abuses committed by teachers in First Nation and elite private schools. There is no question that children were abused in the past, and many reports of abuse were ignored (as evidenced by the Residential School situations). Yes, the reports of these abused children were discounted, and those in authority sometimes acted criminally. However, the common contemporary assumption – that any and all accusations against teachers (specifically male teachers) are true – flies in the face of data.
Many of the accusations made against teachers are false. They are stories – lies made up by students who find support in parents and friends who are far too quick to point fingers. Careers are ruined and families lost, and those who make such false accusations often face no consequences. Along with those who support them, these students are being allowed to undermine a pillar of the Canadian justice system: guilt must be proven in a court of law, and innocence is something that cannot be given back when falsely wrenched away.
EN BREF - Les modèles masculins deviennent de plus en plus rares dans les classes canadiennes et les facteurs démographiques indiquent que leur faible nombre continuera de diminuer. Le nouveau personnel enseignant est bien préparé aux questions pédagogiques soulevées par les nouvelles normes et par une nouvelle composition démographique des classes, mais le spectre de la violence et des fausses accusations ajoute des dangers qui font vraiment peur – aux étudiantes-maîtres dans le premier cas et aux étudiants-maîtres dans le deuxième. Un enseignant masculin sur sept est faussement soupçonné de contact inapproprié avec des élèves et les systèmes scolaires canadiens ne disposent pas de procédures pour réagir rapidement et pour protéger la réputation des innocents faussement accusés. Bien que la sécurité des élèves soit primordiale, les droits du personnel enseignant doivent également être protégés.