04/08/2016 05:27 EDT | Updated 04/09/2017 05:12 EDT

Who Watches The Watchmen And Teaches The Teachers?

A classroom with a red apple, books and a blackboard with handwriting in white chalk on the board.
s-c-s via Getty Images
A classroom with a red apple, books and a blackboard with handwriting in white chalk on the board.

This may come as a shock to some readers: Teachers are human beings -- nearly all of them. This means that, like the rest of us, they make mistakes, behave badly, and sometimes just lose it.

It also means that, like the rest of us, most teachers are basically good and honest people who work hard to do a very difficult job. But some are not. And the ones who are not should not be teaching.

There are certain professions that demand a greater accountability than others. Teaching, like policing, nursing, and other professions that work with a particularly vulnerable population, creates a unique circumstance. The professionals who do these jobs are unusually vulnerable themselves to accusations of wrongdoing. They are also people who have access to potential victims with little power to complain and be believed.

Who has not had a teacher who they felt truly hated them? How many times do we learn about police officers who mistreat people, or nurses who neglect or abuse the patients in their care? Not all the stories we hear are true, but many are.

Recently, the CBC program Marketplace, investigated the discipline of teachers about whom complaints had been made. Not surprisingly, they found it nearly impossible to track down what had happened to teachers who were the subject of discipline. The reason? Privacy. Most workplaces are required to and do protect the privacy of their employees. Very few of us want the public to know about our relationships with our employers, particularly where those relationships are problematic. Fair enough. Or is it?

If you make widgets and your widgets are substandard, your employer may discipline you or even fire you. You probably won't get a letter of reference when you try to find another job as a widget maker, but that will be between you and those you hope will employ you next.

But what if you are a teacher, a police officer or a nurse and you are doing things that such professionals should not be doing -- or not doing your job as it should be done? Who needs to know and how public should this information become?

Imagine two different scenarios: A student who is not doing her work is getting poor grades. She falsely tells her family that she is working very hard, but that her teacher is giving her low grades because he just dislikes her. The family complains to the principal, the principal investigates, and finds that the teacher is in the right. No action is taken.

A second student is also getting poor grades. She reveals to her family that she is being abused by her teacher but has not said anything previously because she is afraid and embarrassed. The family complains to the principal, the principal investigates but does not believe the student's story. No action is taken.

In neither case is there any follow up. This is not a small problem. How long did the stories of abuse in the residential school system have to be heard before any action was taken? How long could the Catholic and other churches cover up the abuses committed against children before action was taken? How many young Black men will be killed before we understand what is going on? How many patients will suffer before the State of New York actually looks at nurses' criminal records when they hire them?

My late colleague A. Alan Borovoy, former General Counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, regularly and persistently called for independent audits of those professions that deal with vulnerable populations. He explained that while internal audits and complaint procedures may in fact be fair, they can never be seen to be fair. When a profession has at heart its own best interests, it will always appear to be in a conflict of interest. If the Catholic Church had not chosen to concentrate on their need to protect the public face of the Church, would the abusive priests have been brought to trial at the time their behavior was discovered, rather than decades later after journalists eventually found the information that had been so well concealed?

Would we feel better about policing if we knew that a truly independent body would not only investigate complaints against particular police officers, but also look into policies and procedures to ensure that they were equitable and fairly applied?

If there were an independent body that could look at complaints against teachers and see how these were handled and what the outcome of the complaints were, would we feel that the "bad apples" could no longer abuse our children?

I think that the time has come for accountability and transparency in all professions that deal with vulnerable populations. As Alan Borovoy once said, such professionals are no more evil than the rest of us, they are just no less human.

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