Lift this shroud of secrecy

The New Zealand Teachers Council has kept a shroud of secrecy over a case of serious misconduct involving a physical education teacher at a Christian school who had an inappropriate relationship with a 17-year-old student.

The council's Disciplinary Tribunal suspended the offender's practising certificate for three years and ordered him to tell prospective employers of the offence, if he returns to teaching.

The teacher was one of 11 found guilty of serious misconduct last year, but the media may not name the teachers or schools involved. The council is keen to maintain the muzzle. It has drawn attention to Teachers Council (Conduct) Rule 32 (1), warning the public that it is illegal to publish details of its disciplinary proceedings. Under this rule, no-one may publish any details of a tribunal decision (a strict interpretation means it has been breached simply by our regurgitating of a few facts here).

There can be good reason for suppression orders. Key witnesses in teacher disciplinary cases almost always are children or young people who have been through a traumatic event, and anonymity encourages parents and innocent children to come forward. But the same is true of sex crimes prosecuted in the courts, where offenders are not guaranteed anonymity.

Bryce Johns, editor of the Herald on Sunday and a former editor of this newspaper, has asked tribunal chairwoman Alison McAlpine to press for rule changes that relax the sweeping suppression orders. He notes that Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal hearings involving doctors, nurses, midwives and several other medical professions must be public unless there are specific grounds for suppression.

Wellington barrister Graeme Edgeler has taken the matter to Parliament's Regulations Review Committee. He is confident that the committee has the authority to investigate the rules and knows if any one of its five members moved that the council suppression rules be disallowed, the House would have to vote on it or the motion would succeed. He says things don't have to go that far. The Teachers Council will realise its position is untenable and change its rules more in keeping with freedom of expression. He can count on plenty of parental support for challenging procedures that nurture such secrecy.