A teacher's story: a complaint and its consequences

September 1997

The author of this story wishes to remain anonymous because her aim is to provide insight into the possible consequences of speaking out in the school system rather than to document allegations against particular individuals.

This account tells in brief of the consequences of what was a legitimate complaint. Because the nature of the complaint was awkward for my employers, the Education Department, the whole incident was covered up and a concerted attempt was made to make me appear an inadequate person and an unsatisfactory teacher, who could not be taken seriously. All means of seeking justice failed. I approached the state member of my electorate and the Education minister at the time, until I was told by a Departmental letter that any further approaches would lead to discipline (i.e. the sack). I approached the Union. The Ombudsman encouraged me to use the grievance system which brought pages of reports and criticisms of me as a teacher and my family as inadequate. I applied to the Anti-Discrimination board and Human Rights and Equal Opportunities to no avail. It seems unlikely that I will ever teach in a classroom again.

In this account I have not named names. The warning that lies within the story is more important than the names, because all of this could happen to anyone who complains. I am relaying this account because I still can't accept that a school administration can tolerate a teacher blatantly referring to 'coons' in the staff common room without retribution. There was no investigation of this complaint. If you, the reader, feel you must act over some inappropriate work practice or behaviour, be prepared to lose your job and tarnish your reputation. Be prepared never to work again.

I learned many lessons from my experience. Under the state law at the time I could tape conversations and tape phone calls with some restrictions. I learned I should have carried a cassette recorder to all meetings. I should have had some means of taping phone calls, because I suffered telephone threats. I should have kept all correspondence and dated the day I received it. This might vary considerably from the date it is dated as sent. I learned that the Union may or may not give support. I also learned that it did not matter how favourably I was viewed by, for example, past students. By the time anything concrete happened (and it is a long time) they had moved on and I was alone. The myth of freedom of speech was a difficult lesson. How an organisation looks to the public is much more important to the hierarchy in administration than how it is run.

When I decided to complain about the actions of my superiors at work I had, simply, no idea of the consequences. What happened was so offensive, and such a violation of human rights that it never occurred to me that my only possible safe action was silence.

My complaint was over racist vilification (of Aborigines). There were four of us at morning tea when an incident at the school fence sparked action by a member of the school administration who then joined the morning tea group. This person led the verbal assault, and I'd never seen that before. Scathing comment about Aborigines often came from staff, but vilification from the point of real power (i.e. the Admin) put a whole new complexion on it. I scarcely knew the Admin officer concerned, except in a limited, formal work-related way -- his presumption of familiarity with me was arrogant. The men in the group were coerced by their leader to outdo each other in verbal atrocity.

I waited for ten days before I made my initial complaint. First I approached an Aboriginal colleague, who lived around the corner. He told me that all concerned would be subpoenaed by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity people and they would have to tell the truth then. By his words I felt vindicated from the guilt and soul searching I'd done for the last ten days. He suggested I talk to a colleague (white) at the School Support Centre.

I explained to the person at the Support Centre that my bravado had died since seeing my Aboriginal colleague, but I did want to make the complaint. (I was mostly concerned for one of the men involved. I'd always liked him, and knew that he was a victim of his maleness and his position.) My colleague made two suggestions: that I speak to a woman on staff who had witnessed the vilification and that I consult with someone high in Regional Office. Before I went there, my witness promised me her support. By the time I saw the person from Regional Office three and a half weeks had passed since the incident and it was (by chance) the last day of the academic year. I complained over the phone to the Admin (though not to the person who was involved) and wrote a letter to another member of Regional Office, making this a formal grievance.

On the student free day after the holidays, then nine weeks since the incident, I was called to the office over another matter. After that was dispensed with, there was a heated discussion between myself and an Admin officer (not the vilifier) about the racial vilification issue. During this time the officer begged me not to take the matter any further, because the school would be held in disrepute. I gave the matter some thought, as by now my witness had also been coerced to have selective amnesia about the incident, but decided to take the honourable course and proceed with the complaint.

There followed a week during which I was called to meetings in my own time. Niggly things, these meetings. (At one, a full forty minute break in my own time with waiting, the vilifier said he was sorry that I felt he spoke to me aggressively during an unrelated incident; he was not sorry, just sorry I felt the way I did. He made his apologies for my feelings quite clear.) The meetings were also menacing. Suddenly my teaching performance was being questioned over a particular class I had seen for, at best, 55 periods. The teacher who had taught the class for the rest of the year (approximately 150 periods) was not questioned similarly. The results being queried were produced after I had taught the class for only 10 periods. I had been also given a difficult timetable with subjects out of my teaching area. This had not happened before. Every year previously I got pretty much the same sort of timetable.

I took a few days leave. When I returned the final blow was dealt. I had been relieved of all classes for the day to give me a chance to catch up with my work. (After four days leave, one the swimming carnival?) One of the Admin officers asked me to call at the office after form talks when all students had been dispensed with. I arrived as requested, but what was presented to me as a casual chat was suddenly a full blown meeting/interrogation. Two from Admin were present and both were taking notes. The door was closed without my consent. I only stayed there five minutes. I wasn't prepared to be intimidated. I really believed that a mark had been overstepped, and I rang the Union. I was wrong of course. What Admin had done to me was quite legal.

I took extended stress leave.

By this stage, I had already consulted with the then Education minister's chief aide and been promised action. However, soon after my consultation, the Education minister changed portfolios, and advice given to me by the new minister's aide was that I should follow the grievance procedure which had been instigated to protect the rights of public servants. At that stage I had no distrust of the grievance system. I felt that if no action were to be taken on a complaint of this nature after some had been promised by the previous minister, putting it down in writing again would be of no use. Admin at the school had advised me to use the grievance system too.

I applied for Workers' Compensation for my stress leave and tried to take some action.

I was introduced to representatives of the state branch of Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Board and told them the whole story. They suggested I write the whole thing out in a formal letter and present it to the regional branch, but I would have close to a twelve month wait. I told Human Rights that my initial complaint had had no effect as a teacher had been referring to 'killing coons' and 'catching coons' in the staff common room, and he was one of the original five from that morning tea late in November. Human Rights people were particularly interested. I did write the letter.

After speaking to the Ombudsman's representative, I decided to take my grievance a stage further. The Ombudsman's representative was very determined that the grievance system should work for me. He explained the rules about the time cut offs and suggested that my grievance should not be about the racial vilification, but my treatment since making that complaint. I'd never be able to prove that the vilification happened, but my treatment was easy to prove.

First stage grievance takes a week (unless it is prolonged by a holiday as mine was) and so does second stage. As my grievance was against the Admin at the school I could move immediately into second stage grievance with my letter.

As a teacher I obtained no representation from the Union because the teaching Admin and ordinary teachers belong to the same Union. I wrote out my letter about my second stage grievance, and waited seven days. The Union asked me if I had been unambiguous in my statement that it was a grievance when I told them the time had been illegally extended by the Department. What I didn't know, and they certainly should have, was that a complaint against another member of staff was a grievance. After nine days an appointment was made to see a representative of Regional Office and of the school Admin. By the time we met and I received the typed analysis of the meeting, which said I had nothing to be aggrieved about, almost three weeks had passed. I accepted it too.

I did not immediately move on to third stage grievance, which is the last one held within the Education Department, because I'd been told at second stage by the Regional Office representative that third stage grievance would not be the casual , laid back affair that second stage had been. As in second stage I'd felt the wrath of the third degree, I did pause for a time to reflect on the consequences of stage three action. But I did go to third stage, chasing justice.

I wrote regularly to the then Education Minister about how little had been done about my case. I was promised an answer, but received none. Months passed. The state election was drawing closer, so I wrote a letter to the premier, reminding him of some promise he had made in a speech. He wrote back, assuring me an answer would soon arrive.

It did. First, my Workers' Compensation payment was refused because of letters written by two members of Admin and a comment that I was undergoing a 'performance management process'. At that time, by law, if your (work) performance was under review you could not be paid Workers' Compensation. It was the first I knew of any process, and much later on, Freedom of Information revealed no such review. It was a use though for Diminished Work Performance for teachers who dared to speak out. They were denied normal Compensation cover by the Department if they could be said to be undergoing Diminished Work Performance. There were no Head Of Department checks on me, no poor reports. I had not been overseen by a superior officer since I first rejoined the Department about ten years earlier. Yet it was the first claim, Admin were just about to serve Diminished Work Performance before I walked out. After a period of time on this category you can be sacked, so it is a powerful tool.

Next, I received an answer to all my correspondence with the Education minister. He was represented by the director-general but the actual letter had been written in my home town. It began with an apology over Workers' Compensation, which had been delayed by then seven months. The rest of the five pages were forthright concerns over my teaching competency, and indeed the complaint I had made was seen as a smoke screen to hide my incompetence. Many quotes were inaccurate, and one, that I checked, did not exist. When I asked at Regional Office for the letter from which it came, I found, some time later, that it was clipped to a thick pile of other letters. The contents were offensive and should have been immediately brought to my attention. Secret files cannot legally be kept on public servants in the state. Anything that can be construed as derogatory on file has to be sighted and signed by the public servant. Again, I did not know my rights.

The Department letter almost destroyed me. Teaching had been my life. I should not have given the contents a second thought because this treatment is common to whistleblowers. I, however, looked through my files, seeking out the quotes, looking for some answer. My psychiatrist told me that many teachers in my position are treated this way with letters of this kind.

I was supported by a teacher who had been on staff during the thick of it. She supplied me with insider information, which is why I know how my witness was compromised by Admin coercion. She did write a letter later, explaining her position and knowledge to my solicitor, but her letter counts as hearsay legally. Her support was comforting.

I was also supported by another teacher who had been put through the mill by the Department and had attempted to use the grievance system to obtain justice. His support and prior knowledge from his own experience helped me both emotionally and practically. He told me that the Department was breaking the law over the third stage of my grievance which had gone long over the designated two week time length. If I did not object to their law breaking, I could be seen as acquiescing. So I faxed the Department (both regional and state) and the then Premier. I was ignored by all three. The Department had sent their man to investigate the third stage of the grievance, and he sent me several draft reports that were inaccurate, and derogatory to me. It was as if he had been employed to stretch out the time, sending more and more inaccurate reports that had to be redrafted and reread. I rang the Public Sector Management Committee (PSMC) over the delays and eventually a final date was set for the Department response to third stage grievance, my answer to their response and their response to my response, etc. This is called a fair treatment appeal.

I knew of several areas of law that had been transgressed, so I appealed to the Union to help me set out my case, as now in the fourth stage, they were free to assist. It was difficult to pin the organiser down to the phone. I phoned many times. Calls were not returned as promised, conversations were cut off or interrupted or incomplete. Eventually the four weeks passed for my response. I had to go it alone. I faxed and phoned the Union, asking for a written response committing themselves as to whether or not I had their support for this fourth stage grievance about Departmental breaking of PSMC laws. Eventually, twelve months later, I received a response in writing that explained that the Union believed I'd achieved the outcomes I wanted from the fair treatment appeal.

I was contacted by the Union on behalf of Regional office (and I thought the Union represented the worker), assuring me that the six determinations arising from my grievance would be waived if I did not proceed with fourth stage grievance. Out went the Departmental medical assessment. Findings from that can destroy the credibility of any whistleblower; I have seen an ordinary person reported to be dangerous and incompetent. Out went Diminished Work Performance. All those concerns about my teaching raised in letters back and forth could be dropped if I did not go on to fourth stage; my work performance was only relevant if I wanted to prosecute. Out went the training in understanding racism that the staff were to receive The Union certainly couldn't stand for that. I seriously considered going ahead, but I was very much on my own. For health reasons I wished to retire. The Department is powerful. Transfers can be arranged away from home and family. Diminished Work Performance is another tool that could be employed against me at a later stage.

I had already applied to retire, so I pulled out of the fight, believing that something could be done once I was away from the menacing disciplinary action threats.

It can't as far as I can tell.

I was granted Workers' Compensation 12 months after applying, which under the law at that time I should have been originally granted. Human Rights could not help as I am white, and not of Aboriginal background. If I could show that my treatment had been that reserved for a woman, they could intercede. I have since wondered if I gave in too readily on that count.

A solicitor helped me and went through my case in great detail. It was his opinion that I could better spend my money otherwise than in a fight with the Department.

The pattern is the same: the dissident teacher is put on Diminished Work Performance, put under considerable stress, called inadequate in work performance and silenced or removed from the system. I do not believe many grievance procedures reach fourth stage, because there is no help, and most aggrieved are ill informed. The Department can transfer almost at will. The Union are reluctant to intercede. The threat of a finding of Diminished Work Performance ensures silence.

The act of whistleblowing will follow me always.

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