18 January 2022

Sex, porn and abuse: How ACT Education Directorate tried to keep teacher misconduct investigations secret

| Ian Bushnell
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The ACT Ombudsman says that teacher behaviour is an issue of great public interest. Photo: File.

The Education Directorate spent most of last year fighting the release of documents detailing investigations into teachers accused of inappropriate behaviour, including sexually related conduct, accessing pornography at school, and assaulting and abusing students.

The documents, which were part of a freedom of information request, have only just been released after a scathing ACT Ombudsman’s review decision in late November.

The FoI application to the Teacher Quality Institute, the regulating agency, covered any documents detailing why any teacher had been given a formal warning, had conditions placed on their registration, or been suspended or deregistered from 1 July 2019 to 2 February 2021.

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The TQI passed the application to the Directorate, which released two heavily redacted documents, arguing that most of the information was outside the scope of the application, would prejudice investigations and the teachers’ right to privacy under the Human Rights Act.

But the applicant took the matter to the ACT Ombudsman, which highlighted the public interest in teacher behaviour and the TQI’s investigations and the importance of government accountability and transparency.

Acting Senior Assistant Ombudsman Symone Andersen’s Review Decision reveals that the way bureaucrats interpret the FOI Act, which she said has an express pro-disclosure bias, can frustrate the Act’s intent.

She said in her decision that the Directorate appeared to have taken a very narrow approach when determining what information falls within scope, saying agencies “should be guided by the objects of the FOI Act, including to facilitate and promote the disclosure of the maximum amount of government information”.

“It is important that agencies broadly and fairly read the scope of the access application,” she said.

“Officers should keep in mind that applicants may not know exactly what government information an agency may hold, and the FOI Act does not require a precise description of information to be provided.

“Requests must not be interpreted with the exactitude that applies to legislation or a set of pleadings.”

But she did agree to withholding any information that might identify the teachers.

“I consider the identifying information, relevantly names, TQI numbers, the name of the applicable school and specific job descriptions could reasonably be expected to prejudice an individual’s right to privacy, but information about alleged conduct by the individuals in this context and the management of matters by the TQI is inherently a public rather than private function.”

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The documents show investigated misconduct ranging from unnamed offences to yelling and swearing at or manhandling students to matters that required police involvement. Many investigations remain ongoing.

One teacher was accused of “inappropriate regular physical contact and communication with a student”, while another complaint involved “inappropriate touching, crossing professional boundaries, inappropriate and overly personal or intimate conduct” towards students, including physical contact with them.

Another allegedly made inappropriate and sexualised comments to various students in a class.

There was one instance of historical sexual abuse.

Another case involved a teacher allegedly sending a student from a previous school sexually explicit pictures and comments via social media and inappropriate interactions at the previous school.

There were two cases of teachers accessing pornography either at school or at home on work laptops, including several teachers repeatedly accessing multiple amounts of explicit and adult pornographic material.

One of the more serious assault allegations involved a teacher throwing a chair at a student.

TQI actions ranged from termination to suspension and formal warnings. Some teachers chose to resign.

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