Legal: You need to get it right first time every time

Your first response to any serious allegation against you can make the difference between facing a lengthy suspension and official disciplinary action or having the matter dealt with swiftly and sensibly at a school level.

As you embark on a new school year, it is vital to remember the importance of treating all allegations seriously. You should never be hurried into a speedy response and always be mindful of the potential pitfalls in how you respond.

The allegations

In our work for the QTU, we occasionally deal with allegations such as hitting a student, indecently touching a student or aggressively shouting or yelling at a student in class.
Such allegations are sometimes easily disproved, and if they are taken seriously by the accused person from the very beginning, it can make a hugely positive difference to how the matter is dealt with.

In particular, we are seeing an increasing number of teachers and school administrators face allegations that they failed to make a mandatory report of suspected abuse under Queensland’s strict mandatory reporting laws, either at all or “immediately”, as is required by section 365 of the Education (General Provisions) Act 2006.

The department’s policy on mandatory reporting is based on the act, but is actually more onerous, and how you make the report and then how you answer any disciplinary allegations against you can be vital.

The “hurdles”

While there is an almost limitless list of allegations that can be made against you, there are generally three levels of potential legal “hurdles” that need to be cleared when more serious allegations are made against you. These are:

  • criminal proceedings
  • disciplinary proceedings by the department 
  • professional registration proceedings by the Queensland College of Teachers. 

The response

When you are first made aware of an allegation, you may be tempted to respond quickly, and even worry that a delay in making your statement may cause suspicion of “guilt”. The reality is that if the response is not carefully considered, important matters may be left out or inappropriate statements made.

For example, if a physical intervention has taken place with a student, it is important that you put it in the proper context. The events leading up to the intervention should be carefully recorded, along with any directions given by you to the student before the intervention took place. For the criminal hurdle, you must show that you intended to protect both the student involved and the other students from harm. For the department and the college, it is important to show that any force used was proportionate and that departmental guidelines were followed.

You are required to report suspected sexual abuse as soon as possible, but when you form a suspicion we recommend that you immediately sit down and write out a factual account of what happened. For example, “student A came up to me in the playground and told me that Mr B had been tickling her in the classroom”. The statement will be vital as the basis of making the report in the department’s system and as the basis for police statements later, should that be necessary.

In summary, your first response is always vital, and you should make sure it is accurate, detailed and honest while not omitting important information or making careless statements.
If you are unsure about how to respond to an allegation or feel pressured to respond too quickly, contact the Union for advice, and where it is necessary, the Union will refer the matter for legal advice.

Edmund Burke                                                                                                                    Holding Redlich Lawyers

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 123 No 1, 9 February 2018, p29