Legal: Disciplinary action against principal set aside
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 125 No 2, 20 March 2020, page no.29
A principal is back at school after the Department of Education’s attempt to discipline her for allegedly “talking abruptly” to a member of staff was set aside by the QIRC.
In this case, the department proposed to impose disciplinary action on the principal following allegations of bullying.
With the support of the Union’s legal assistance, the principal was able to appeal the findings to the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission and the President of the Industrial Court of Queensland.
The President noted that, as to communication between the principal and the office staff member, “Miss X”, it had been found that on one occasion the principal had spoken inappropriately and aggressively to Miss X, and that “on occasion” the principal “spoke abruptly and displayed an aggressive demeanour”.
Interestingly, the President found that the second of these was not supported by any specific findings about the interactions between the principal and Miss X. Further, that finding had been artificially “shored up” by a finding that the principal spoke to Miss X about Miss X’s performance “other than in a closed room”.
The President was critical that, although the department’s decision maker had made this finding, no such assertion had been put to the principal, the President noting that the principal “may well have had an answer”. It seems to be implicit in the decision of the President that to sustain a finding of non-observance of the relevant policy, one isolated incident and occasional speech which was not different to that to other staff fell short of what was required.
The department conceded that a failure to achieve best practice is not in itself a breach of the department’s workplace bullying harassment and violence policy.
The appeal was allowed and the disciplinary finding set aside.
While this principal was ultimately successful in defending the allegations, the process was stressful and confronting. Unfortunately, matters such as this are anything but uncommon.
Disciplinary action may be taken under the Public Service Act against school leaders and teachers who are public service officers under that act.
Disciplinary investigations are conducted under a statutory process including a requirement that natural justice (ie procedural fairness) is followed. The act allows a dissatisfied member to appeal to the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission and the Industrial Court.
In recent years, the Union has had a number of successes in assisting principals to appeal against disciplinary action proposed by the department.
Issues to do with inter-personal behaviour and whether it amounts to bullying, harassment, breaches of the code of conduct or misconduct are difficult to investigate and assess. It is important that considerable care is taken before an adverse finding is made against a principal or other school leader, given the important responsibilities they need to discharge.
In appropriate cases, the Union will support and assist members to conduct such appeals. As this case demonstrates, a successful outcome is possible where the member of the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission hearing the appeal assesses whether appropriate findings have been made and appropriate reasoning applied where somewhat difficult and vague concepts are the basis of the disciplinary action.