Disciplinary Letter for Carelessness Must Be Amended

While some discipline was warranted for a teacher who inadvertently lost track of 10 primary school students during a field trip, the employer was nevertheless required to correct inaccuracies and mischaracterizations in the letter of discipline.

A teacher with more than 20 years’ experience, it was J.B.’s practice to take her students on 10 to 12 field trips per year. Over her career, J.B. had managed these field trips without serious incident until a trip to nearby York University went awry.

With a volunteer taking the rear of the line, J.B. took the lead and directed the class on the 12-minute walk to the university where they met a graduate student who acted as guide for the day.

Group became separated

Again at the head of the line on the way home, J.B. failed to notice that the volunteer, the graduate student and about 10 students had become separated from the rest of the class and out of sight. In a field half way between the school and the university when she made the discovery, J.B. elected to carry on ahead to an intersection where she expected to intercept them. However, the separated group failed to show up as J.B. had anticipated.

Unfortunately, the separated group was stalled at the university when two boys broke from the pack and mounted some parked motorcycles, with the result that one of the bikes was knocked over causing minor damage to the bike and bruises to one of the boys.

One month later J.B. was presented with a letter of discipline by the school principal. The letter purported to summarize the events that occurred and alleged that J.B.’s conduct was contrary to the excursion forms she had signed. In addition, the letter referenced J.B.’s obligations under the Education Act and warned that future incidents could result in disciplinary action up to and including termination.

The union grieved. J.B. was rated as an excellent and exemplary teacher with 22 years’ experience, the union said. The union asked the arbitrator to make a finding that the letter was unjust and order that it be removed from the grievor’s file and destroyed.

Disciplinary letter must be accurate

Losing contact with a group of her students indicated a lack of proper care — conduct that justified a disciplinary response, the arbitrator said. However, given the impact that a disciplinary letter can have on a teacher’s professional reputation and employment opportunities, it is important that a letter of discipline accurately reflect what occurred and this letter did not, the arbitrator said.

The letter inaccurately gave the impression that J.B. deliberately left a group of students with the volunteer. The letter also alleged that J.B. failed to follow the excursion documents that she signed. This also was inaccurate.

In addition, by following up a list of requirements as cited in the Education Act with an admonition about the potential for discipline in the event of future transgressions, the letter creates the impression that J.B. was broadly failing to live up to her prescribed duties. This was also not the case.

Noting that it is common for arbitrators to direct employers to amend imposed discipline when it is too harsh, the arbitrator said that the same logic applied in this case because of the misleading nature of some of the language in the letter. “The Board had just cause for a disciplinary letter which indicated that it was being issued in consequence of the grievor losing contact with a volunteer and part of her class. It did not, however, have just [cause] for much of what was included in the letter. Accordingly, I direct that the Board amend the grievor’s personnel file to reflect that she received a letter of discipline for having become separated from a volunteer and a group of students while on a field trip to York University.”

Reference: Toronto District School Board and Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario. Ian Springate — Sole Arbitrator. Anthony Brown for the Employer and Victoria Reaume for the Federation. January 12, 2010. 25 pp.

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