A teacher’s conduct must be exemplary and indicative of respect for the rights of others whenever students are present. While this virtually goes without saying, it can be difficult for a school board to determine which instances of misconduct merit major disciplinary sanctions, up to and including dismissal. That was the issue in a recent arbitration case in Quebec1. In his award, the arbitrator Gilles Ferland denied the grievance of the Syndicat de l’enseignement de Champlain (the “Union”) contesting the dismissal of a 4th grade primary school teacher with 30 years’ service (the “Teacher”).
On February 3rd, 2014, the Commission scolaire Marie-Victorin (the “School Board”) gave the Teacher a notice of termination of his employment contract. The stated grounds for termination were misconduct, immorality and negligence. The evidence showed that the Teacher had committed the following acts:
- grabbing and squeezing the arms of several pupils so that they would go out into the corridor;
- nudging a pupil in the stomach with his foot to compel him to move;
- throwing shoes at a pupil’s stomach;
- throwing a pupil’s schoolbag into the corridor;
- calling one pupil “little fatso” and another “carrot-top”;
- speaking so sternly and harshly during a meeting with a pupil and his parents regarding his report card that the pupil burst into tears.
Some of these acts by the Teacher triggered an investigation by the youth protection department that led to the filing of criminal charges, of which he was found guilty but given an absolute discharge.
In its grievance, the Union argued primarily that the grounds relied on by the employer were insufficient to justify dismissal. The Union also contended that the Teacher’s criminal offences could not constitute grounds for dismissal because he was given an absolute discharge, which it maintained was the equivalent of a pardon, such that the Teacher was protected from dismissal by section 18.2 of Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, despite the fact that the offences were connected with his employment.
The arbitrator first concluded as follows regarding each of the incidents that were proven by the School Board.
First of all, physical force is not an appropriate means to help students understand and respect individual rights2. The Teacher had acted violently, particularly towards a pupil who had himself engaged in violent behaviour by shoving schoolmates in class. The Teacher’s use of physical force against this pupil in that situation was completely at odds with the model he was supposed to exemplify.
Furthermore, calling two pupils respectively “little fatso” (“petit gros”) and “carrot-top” (“petit roux”) was an affront to their dignity. Upon hearing pupils using those expressions, the Teacher should have explained to them that such language is unacceptable, rather than using those same expressions himself when addressing the pupils in question. However, the arbitrator found that the Teacher’s adoption of a stern tone when remitting a pupil’s report card did not constitute a fault.
The arbitrator then went on to determine whether dismissal was an appropriate measure under the circumstances.
He first of all concluded that in virtue of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms3, the employer could not dismiss the Teacher solely on the basis of criminal charges for which he had been given an absolute discharge.
However, the evidence showed that the decision to dismiss was made in light of a series of other incidents that could not be characterized as a mere pretext.
It was thus the cumulative weight of several such incidents over a 14-month period which led the arbitrator to conclude that there was a general behavioural problem which justified dismissal.
In addition, the Teacher refused to face reality and showed no remorse for his conduct.
All of the foregoing culminated in an irremediable breach of the relationship of trust between the School Board and the Teacher.
Ultimately, this case illustrates once again the importance for every teacher of acting as a model of good behaviour, and the inexcusability of the use of force or inappropriate language by a teacher. The arbitrator indicates in his decision that every teacher is duty bound to behave in a way that, as a general rule, is irreproachable as far as standards of behaviour are concerned4. This must thus be borne in mind when the time comes to impose disciplinary sanctions on a teacher who has engaged in misconduct. Remember, however, that an isolated reprehensible incident, even one involving the use of physical force, will generally not justify dismissal, according to the arbitrator in this case.
Written in collaboration with articling student Georges Samoisette Fournier