Professional boundaries of teachers: where do they start and end?

Professional boundaries of teachers: where do they start and end?

Despite the advances in training and compliance over the last several years, sexual misconduct continues in schools today.

The Annual Report of the Victorian Commission for Children & Young People (CCYP) released on 10 December 2020 reported that in 2019–20, the largest increase in conduct type reported to the CCYP related to sexual misconduct allegations (an 18% increase when compared to the previous reporting period).

In Australia’s private schools, sexual misconduct was the most common allegation type, accounting for 43% of all reportable allegations. Over half of all sexual misconduct allegations were in respect of children aged 10–17 years (54%).

For Catholic schools, the most common allegations were physical violence and sexual misconduct, accounting for 36% each of all reportable allegations.

Paul O’Halloran, an employment and safety lawyer at Colin Biggers and Paisely, says school leaders should understand that very few students readily report allegations, particularly of sexual misconduct. He pointed to a US study, which estimates that only about 6% of all children report sexual misconduct by an adult.

“Schools must treat the identification, investigation and resolution of misconduct by staff towards students as an important matter of public policy,” O’Halloran told The Educator.

“A major issue identified by the Royal Commission was that individuals the subject of complaints were not disciplined adequately, or at all, and were not held to account.”

O’Halloran said that in some cases today, schools are not investigating complaints properly.

“In other cases, training has been inadequate and so management teams are not identifying offending conduct carefully enough. In rare cases, misconduct is excused and the perpetrator remains employed and re-offends.”

Preventive strategies

O’Halloran said it is becoming increasingly important for schools to identify and investigate all allegations relating to deviations from acceptable professional standards.

“A robust Code of Conduct is an excellent way to identify, investigate and resolve misconduct engaged in by staff,” he said.

“There must be frequent training on professional boundaries and acceptable behaviours. Students and parents must understand how and to whom to make complaints.”

O’Halloran said students should be empowered to report concerning behaviours towards them.

“Offenders must be dismissed and removed from the profession and not be allowed to resign and sign confidentiality agreements.”