Sixteen months after several cases of alleged sexual misconduct thrust teacher-student relations into the national spotlight, Bahamas Union of Teachers (BUT) officials say they fear teachers may be falsely accused – a claim that was yesterday acknowledged by a top Ministry of Education official.
During a one-day BUT seminar hosted yesterday at All Saints Church on Calvary Hill in Joan’s Heights, aimed at sensitizing male teachers to sexual misconduct in schools, BUT President Belinda Wilson told The Nassau Guardian that many of the high-profile cases involving teachers accused of acting inappropriately with students continue to negatively impact the profession.
“It’s actually putting a black mark on the profession although the numbers are small,” said Wilson. “So we are saying, listen, we need you [teachers] to be cognizant of not only the change in culture in education, but even if you are guilty of something what the ramifications are.
“The other thing is that we are very concerned about false allegations because sometimes some of the allegations prove to be false. So we need to also find out what is the recourse for the person whose name has been slandered all over the media, school, and the community.”
Director of Education Lionel Sands admitted yesterday that investigating claims of sexual misconduct at schools across the country has become a careful balancing act.
Sands acknowledged that the Ministry is also concerned about false allegations possibly being made against teachers.
“They [allegations] may be of some malicious intent by some students; however, the moment we have received an allegation from a student we must investigate because we can’t presume it is not true,” said Sands. “The teacher has every right to seek legal representation from a lawyer with respect to those allegations being made.
“It is very difficult to have the teachers unpainted. So that’s the reason why in the Ministry of Education, while we must investigate, we are very careful to ensure that the allegations are indeed much more than allegations. Those students who are not speaking the truth would have to also be dealt with.”
Wilson revealed earlier this week that up to 40 teachers have been placed on administrative leave over the last couple of years. She also said that the situation is contributing to the current teacher shortage and is affecting the overall performance of some students in the government school system.
Most recently, education officials placed a primary school teacher accused of inappropriate sexual contact with two girls on administrative leave last week. The Ministry of Education’s Sexual Complaints Unit is investigating reports that the male teacher touched the girls, ages six and 10, inappropriately on the school’s grounds.
Officials also placed a male teacher in Andros accused of making lewd comments of a homosexual nature to a male student on administrative leave recently.
The ministry’s Sexual Complaints Unit was formed in 2009 to ensure that sexual abuse complaints are dealt with efficiently. The ministry has been harshly criticized over its handling of complaints related to the sexual molestation of students at the Eight Mile Rock High School.
Andre Birbal, a 47-year-old art teacher at the school, appeared before a magistrate last week on charges that he had sex with two male students over a seven-year period. Officials in New York surrendered Birbal for extradition on Wednesday, March 25.
But while Wilson said it is the union’s belief that no child should be a victim of abuse, the union also believes no teacher should be falsely accused.
For this reason she insisted the Ministry of Education should be more forthcoming with exactly how the Sexual Complaints Unit conducts its investigations.
“I am very concerned with the way Education has been conducting investigations because there has been a unit that has been set up and I am not aware who is in it or what the parameters are in which they are supposed to be working, or once they have completed their investigations what is the next move,” said Wilson.
Vice President of the BUT Father Sebastian Campbell, who was also at the seminar, said he believed teachers have been unfairly targeted in over-aggressive investigations.
Going even further, Campbell said many of the 300-plus male teachers in the public education system feel they are being treated unfairly and getting a bad rap.
“So far, we’ve had three or four sessions with the males here in New Providence and it was surprising what has surfaced in those sessions,” said Campbell. “A lot of the men are convinced they have been targeted and when someone is out to get them, albeit students, they can trump up any allegation and put men in danger.
“So there is the belief that these allegations will be used by students to get even with those teachers that they don’t like. So the whole system needs to rush into this to correct the system and exonerate who needs to be exonerated and get rid of the bad apples.”
But Sands insisted that males are not the only teachers currently being investigated by the Sexual Complaints Unit.
He said last year three female teachers were investigated, while so far this year allegations have been brought against two female teachers.
Still, the ministry official added that he was pleased to team up with BUT to set up yesterday’s seminar for male teachers.
“When the BUT came to us requesting a day for the union to meet with male teachers, to try to sensitize them to their responsibility and how they might be able to avoid having allegations being made against them, we were pleased to help out,” said Sands.
According to Wilson, BUT also plans to hold similar seminars for male teachers across The Bahamas including Grand Bahama next month.
Source and acknowledgement: Nassau Guardian