Five-year probe into teacher

An investigation into a teacher who allegedly struck two children that took five years to resolve was "unreasonable" and reflects poorly on all involved, the ombudsman says.

The teacher subject to the New Zealand Teachers Council (NZTC) investigation, referred to as Mr A, complained to the ombudsman about the delay, poor communication, and conduct of the complaints assessment committee (CAC) involved in his case.

The ombudsman upheld his complaints on those matters, finding he suffered avoidable stress and frustration as a result of the "woefully inadequate" communication from the CAC and the delays in the investigation.

Mr A was the subject of one conduct complaint in December 2006 and another, at a second school, was made to the NZTC and referred to a CAC in July 2008.

The conduct complained about involved incidents of alleged striking of two primary school students.

As a result of the investigation, Mr A's registration was suspended and he signed a voluntary agreement which required him to undergo a risk assessment to determine whether he could safely return to the classroom, the ombudsman's report said.

The communication from the CAC about the assessments Mr A was required to undertake as part of his agreement highlighted "unsatisfactory and unclear communication" from the committee to Mr A.

Internal correspondence indicated that, on many occasions, the CAC was at a loss as to how to proceed, particularly surrounding the assessment, the ombudsman's report said.

Almost a year after advising Mr A to find his own assessor, the CAC remained unsure who would be a suitable person to conduct the assessments.

Throughout this period, Mr A was not kept informed of what the CAC was considering.

"It is difficult to understand why the CAC was 'confused'," the ombudsman's report said.

"Such organisational processes should have been accessible to the CAC at the outset."

NZTC accepted there were delays in Mr A's case, but submitted the delays reflected "the thoroughness of the investigation and the significant concerns which the CAC continued to have about the physical safety of students around Mr A".

The ombudsman found it was "not credible to claim the lengthy delays reflected the "thoroughness of the investigation and complexity of the case", because CAC members are tasked with considering conduct complaints and should have had the skills and support to consider any behaviour or conduct brought to their attention.

"In my opinion the complexity of Mr A's case does not excuse the extraordinary delays, which could have been avoided if the CAC's case management procedures had been of an appropriate standard," the report said.

"The delays reflect poorly on NZTC, the CAC panel members and the legal assessors.

"Clearly, the CAC process in relation to Mr A was extraordinarily protracted and caused him understandable stress and frustration."

The matters NZTC was notified about regarding Mr A were serious and demanded prompt action to protect pupils and alert any future employing schools, the ombudsman found.

Mr A had been asking the CAC since early 2009 why his case was taking so long to progress.

"I feel the lack of communication, unclarity of process and the time CAC has taken is of great concern as this has caused considerable anxiety, distress, loss of income and hopelessness," Mr A said in a letter from May, 2011.

The CAC did not immediately reply to the letter, and a meeting was instead arranged for August 18, 2011, after Mr A indicated he would complain to the ombudsman.

The meeting was to address what Mr A said was "unjustified delay", "poor communication", and "lack of proper guidance", among other things

At the meeting, a CAC panel member questioned Mr A about the behaviour that had led to the CAC investigation, rather than focusing on his concerns about the handling of the case, the report said.

"Could I just remind you. I heard your statement but I just want to remind you, you have been before the CAC because of the actions you took, not us," the panel member said.

"And yet you say you're a great teacher. Well great teachers don't do what you did to children."

The ombudsman said it was unreasonable to concentrate on Mr A's conduct when that had not been the focus of the meeting - Mr A had on several occasions apologised for his behaviour and accepted the outcome of the investigation and the terms of the agreement.

The meeting failed to achieve its purpose, and the panel member's treatment of Mr A was unfair, the ombudsman found.

The ombudsman recommended the NZTC and CAC formally apologise to Mr A for the considerable delays during its investigation and for its failure to explain the actual reasons for the delays.

The report recommended NZTC make a $2000 ex gratia payment to Mr A in light of the "unreasonably prolonged and inadequately managed CAC handling of Mr A's case, and in recognition of the avoidable stress he has suffered."

NZTC accepted the findings, criticisms and recommendations in the report.

It said CAC panels now had new goals and procedures in place for the purpose of ensuring the timely progress of cases in acknowledgement of the importance in dealing with complaints in a timely manner.