The secrecy must go

Kathryn Powley at HoS reports:

A physical education teacher at a Christian school has admitted to an inappropriate relationship with a 17-year-old student – one of 11 teachers found guilty of serious misconduct last year whose actions have been permanently suppressed.

The New Zealand Teachers Council has posted a warning advising the public and media it is illegal to publish details of disciplinary proceedings.

The warning is based on a little-known blanket suppression rule that has never been enforced, and is more draconian than the rules used by the criminal courts and most disciplinary bodies.

The Teachers Council Disciplinary Tribunal has suspended the PE teacher’s practising certificate for three years, and has ordered him to tell prospective employers of the offence if he returns to teaching.

However because of the new warning we can’t report his name. Nor can we report his school. Strictly speaking, the Herald on Sunday shouldn’t be reporting the misconduct and suspension at all.

Teachers Council (Conduct) Rule 32(1), set in place under statute in 2004, means nobody may publish any details of a tribunal decision. That means any reports you’ve read in newspapers or seen on television are against the law.

Media organisations were unaware of this rule until late last year, when the crystal-clear warning was posted on the tribunal’s website.

“No person or organisation may publish any report or account of a 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 means communities may not be told about the two teachers found guilty of physically abusing students last year, another one found to have sexually abused a vulnerable student, six teachers who were found guilty of theft or fraud, one who tried to get a gang member to “cap” her principal, not to mention the PE teacher in the inappropriate relationship.

Some of these teachers were struck from the teachers’ register last year, others were allowed to return to the classroom – but the community is barred from knowing about any of them.

Herald on Sunday editor Bryce Johns wrote this week to the tribunal’s chairperson, Alison McAlpine, urging that action be taken to amend this rule and others.

I agree, the rule should be repealed or amended. If the Council won’t do so, then the enabling legislation should be amended.

The tribunal’s rules mean all hearings are held in private and all parties are anonymised, unless the tribunal approves an application otherwise. Anybody may apply to the Disciplinary Tribunal for the PE teacher and his school to be named.

Lind said the reason for strict rules around publishing was because key witnesses were almost always children or young people who had been through a traumatic event. Anonymity was one way of assuring parents and innocent children they could come forward.

But Lind said he would support a change that allowed the council to impose suppression orders case by case, instead of details being suppressed automatically.

That is how it should be. Secrecy should not be the default.

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