Editorial: Protecting the wrong people

Last updated 10:59 21/01/2013

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OPINION: Sometimes legislation drafted with the very best of intentions is just plain wrong and needs to be reworked.

Section 32(1) of the New Zealand Teachers Council (Conduct) Rules, 2004, is one that needs urgent attention. It imposes a blanket ban on reporting the findings of the council's disciplinary tribunal, which deals with surprisingly large numbers of incidents involving sexual or physical abuse by teachers.

The section was clearly intended to protect the identity of children, and their schools, but it now transpires it also provides a blanket protection for the teachers, some of whom have been involved in serious offending, and that anonymity allows them to move on and repeat their behaviour without the public or the schools being able to discover their backgrounds.

The section states that no person or organisation may publish any report or account of a (disciplinary) hearing, publish any part of any document, record, or other information produced at a hearing, and/or publish the name, or any particulars, of the affairs of any party or witness at a hearing.

That clause is unbelievably draconian, imposing a total ban on any reference to any teacher disciplinary hearing, an automatic blanket suppression that does not exist even in our criminal courts. It needs to be repealed, urgently. Parents, schools and the general public must have access to this information for the safety of the very children it seeks to protect.

The Southland Times has published reports of the outcomes of some of these hearings, without naming the schools or the children involved, and without knowing that we have been breaking the law. The Ministry of Education, which administers the tribunal, has taken no action against this newspaper, or it appears, any other news media that has reported on cases dealt with by the tribunal.

However, the ministry late last year posted a warning on its website, highlighting the blanket suppression clause in bold type. As if to emphasise how ludicrous this clause is, the website also includes a section displaying selected cases from tribunal hearings, though with all identifying features - the names of the teacher, school, complainant and even the lawyers who appeared for any of the parties - blacked out.

The website also lists the number of cases it has dealt with each year and that information shows just why parents and schools need to be able to identify teachers who have been offending. The figures are alarming and need to be made public, even though The Southland Times may be breaking the law by revealing them.

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In the past three years, the tribunal has ruled on 67 cases of physical abuse against children by teachers, including 31 in the last year. Acts of sexual abuse against pupils are even higher, with 39 in 2010, 60 in 2011 and 31 last year. The incidence of teachers being caught either watching or possessing pornography is falling, if the figures are accurate, with 54 cases in 2010, 11 in 2011 and none reported on last year.

The highest number of rulings appears to be on teachers being discovered in inappropriate relationships with the children who are supposed to have been in their care. More than 100 cases were dealt with three years ago, another 98 in 2011 and three from last year that have so far been reported on.

The public needs to know who these teachers are, for the protection of our children. The law must be changed.

- The Southland Times

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