Legal: ‘D’ for discipline

Many teachers will have some interaction with a disciplinary process during their careers. It is therefore worth having a basic knowledge of what the process involves.

Criminal investigation

Full QTU legal assistance is granted for any member who is asked to respond to a police inquiry arising from their work as a teacher. You should take details from the police officer and ask to speak to the Union’s lawyers before answering any questions. Police are entitled to record conversations without telling you and the recording can be used against you.

If the complaint results in a criminal charge, in most cases, the criminal trial must occur before the department will address the complaint.

Alleged code of conduct breach investigations

If the matter does not involve a complaint to police, or police decline to charge, the department will commence an investigative process.

The department’s Ethical Standards Unit may appoint an investigator or oversee an investigation by regional office staff. For a minor matter, the investigation will be conducted informally (see below).

The investigator decides whether the allegation can be substantiated. Investigators play an essential part in the discipline process and all interactions with them must be given serious consideration. Many of the department’s investigators have experience in the Queensland Police Service, and are experienced interrogators.

Once the investigation phase is complete, you can be asked to wait months while the department considers its next step.

Substantiated findings and penalty outcomes

Once an investigator decides whether an allegation can be substantiated, the department’s Workforce Review Unit will review the material and decide whether to issue a “show cause” notice.

The role of Workforce Review is to review the investigation material, ask you for your response and then decide what the appropriate penalty is.

If a “show cause” notice is issued, you will have only 14 days to respond. It is essential to seek help from the Union if you receive one.

Once you respond, you can again be asked to wait months for the Workforce Review Unit to make a decision.

If the Workforce Review Unit finds that any allegations are substantiated, a second “show cause” letter proposes a penalty, ranging from a reprimand or a drop in pay to a transfer or dismissal.

You will have seven days to respond. It is essential to seek assistance from the Union at this stage also.

Serious breaches include:

  • using the corporate credit card to buy alcohol
  • interfering with NAPLAN test papers to improve grades
  • operating a home business (e.g. eBay store) during class time
  • failing to comply with mandatory reporting obligations. 

Minor breaches of the code of conduct

In the case of a minor matter, investigation may be conducted by the region, the school or principal.

The maximum penalty is a caution. There is no right to appeal against a caution, and while this may appear unfair, minor investigations are fast and do not suffer the delays of more serious matters.

If you have received a caution and do not agree one should have been imposed, seek the Union’s support to ensure your response to the allegation is clearly recorded in writing and placed in your file.

Minor breaches include:

  • swearing in the staff room or classroom
  • minor student-related complaints such as pushing a student into a line, or snatching a hat off a student’s head. 

Student protection investigations

The past year has seen the department pursue an increased number of investigations into alleged failures to following the mandatory reporting rules.

Failure to report suspected sexual abuse of a student under the age of 18 years, as required by section 365 of the Education (General Provisions) Act 2006 (Qld), has been the main source of these investigations.

It is essential that you contact the Union immediately should you find yourself in this situation.

Giving evidence as a witness

If asked to give evidence against a colleague, take care to avoid any admission of involvement or that you have otherwise breached the department’s code of conduct.

Even if invited to participate as a witness only, if investigators suspect you have breached the code of conduct, the investigation process may be turned on you.

Investigators and decision makers

Don’t make the mistake of believing that the department’s discipline will be understanding of the reality of life in the classroom.

The truth is that the disciplinary process can take an extraordinary time. As the months stretch on, the process becomes increasingly stressful.

The best advice is to conscientiously follow developments in the department’s policies and procedures, then keep to them carefully.

Edmund Burke                                                                                                                    Holding Redlich Lawyers

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 123 No 3, 13 April 2018, p29