The importance of the first response

It is prudent early in the year to draw attention again to the importance of the first response made by a teacher or school administrator on important issues.

It is important not to be pressured or bullied into making an immediate response, particularly if one is shocked or upset by the issue raised. The approach to take is to make clear that as it is a serious matter you will take it seriously and prepare a careful response.

The contexts in which this can arise include an allegation against the teacher (eg. of assault, improper touching, negligence, conflict of interest, misuse of moneys or corporate credit cards), accident reports, mandatory reports of suspected harm, or statements in relation to a possible WorkCover claim. In each case, the first version given by a teacher or school administrator can be extremely important in determining the outcome.

Where the allegation is of misconduct, many types of cases can arise. The “big three” are of course criminal proceedings, disciplinary proceedings by the employer or professional registration proceedings by the Queensland College of Teachers. More rarely, discrimination cases or actions for damages for compensation can arise.

Accordingly, it is vital to provide a careful, relevant and accurate account of your conduct. It is prudent to obtain assistance in the preparation of such statements from the Union and, in appropriate cases, from the Union’s solicitors. To an important extent, one “lives or dies” by the first response. If it is given too quickly without the benefit of advice or careful consideration or when in a state of shock, important matters may be left out or inappropriate statements may be made.

When a teacher or school administrator, with the later benefit of calmness, an opportunity to consider the matter fully and the benefit of advice, gives a different (usually more complete) version, people reading version two may be reluctant to accept it as truthful.

For example, in our experience it is very common for teachers to omit the lead up activities from a statement relating to physical intervention, particularly directions given by them, which can make the physical intervention much more appropriate than it seems without them.

In relation to accident statements, it is very important from a legal perspective to know what has been done by way of preparation in respect of safety. A simple example is warnings about raising of hockey sticks in a hockey match. If the teacher omits these safety instructions from the first version of the statement, then their credibility may be in question if it is subsequently included in a later version.

In relation to the reporting of suspected abuse or harm to a student, before completing the report required by the department we recommend that you sit down and write out a factual account of what happened. For example, “Student X came up to me in the playground and told me she was uncomfortable with Mr Y because he did (xxx) to her after school”. That statement will be vital as the basis of making the report in the department’s system and as the basis for police statements or giving evidence. It is vital to have a really accurate and early record of matters which may be the subject of evidence in court perhaps a year or two later.

To sum up:

  • If it is important, it is important to do it properly.
  • Do not be pushed into preparing a rushed response (particularly where it involves an allegation against the teacher or school administrator).
  • Have the confidence to say “it is a serious matter – I will deal with it that way and I will provide you with a careful statement”.
  • Take advice from or through the Union, where that is appropriate.
  • The first response is vital. Try to make sure it is as accurate, careful and, of course, honest as possible.

There will be (hopefully rare) circumstances where the question is whether to make a response at all. Legal advice is always appropriate in those cases.

Andrew Knott                                                                                                                   Holding Redlich Lawyers

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 122 No 2, 10 March 2017, p27