Allegations of Sexual Abuse

False Allegations

Michael Neville case

Dominion Post
December 11 2004

Safe conduct for teachers
by Sophie Neville

The climate of panic around child safety means the sad reality for male teachers is to safeguard themselves against false accusations. Sophie Neville reports.

When Porirua primary school teacher Michael Stewart's pupils fall over in the playground, he has to find a female teacher to pick them up.

He mustn't be alone with a child. If one tries to hold his hand, he gently tells them not to. When a pupil is upset, he makes sure other people are around before giving them a hug.

Though he thinks the measures are ridiculous, "keeping yourself safe" is a reality for a teacher today, he says.

Mr Stewart teaches eight and nine-year-olds at Windley School in Cannons Creek. When he entered the profession several years ago he chose to teach older children so that physical contact would not be needed as often as with younger ones.

"I think as a male teacher you are a lot more aware of what other people might think is happening."

He has deliberately involved his wife at the school and always wears his wedding ring. Ensuring children and their parents trust him makes him feel less vulnerable to "every teacher's worst nightmare" an allegation of sexual abuse.

Mr Stewart kept a close eye on the trial of Kapiti teacher Michael Neville, who was acquitted of indecent assault charges involving four pupils in Palmerston District Court last week.

Two girls had accused the teacher of touching their genitals, and two others accused him of touching their bottom, chest or stomach. After an eight-day trial he was found not guilty on all charges.

Some are hailing the verdict as a victory for male teachers, but others say the case will have frightened men away from the profession, which is already facing a dearth of men.

Life for male teachers was becoming increasingly difficult because of "a moral panic" gripping schools, Wellington education expert Sarah Farquhar said.

"There is this real fear and anxiety that the teacher is bad and needs to be watched. It's very sad."

Of the country's 25,000 primary school teachers, fewer than 5000 are male. Of those, about 1200 are principals. In 1970 almost 40 per cent of the country's primary teachers were male.

The primary teachers' union, the New Zealand Educational Institute, had created a culture of fear and fuelled it by issuing a code of conduct to its teachers, Dr Farquhar said.

The code said teachers should avoid being alone with a child and keep physical contact to a minimum. Visibility was important at schools and mirrors could be installed above doors. Doors should have glass panels.

The guidelines were "ridiculous" and gave children unhealthy ideas about caring and being cared for, Dr Farquhar said. "Being caring and having physical contact with children is absolutely necessary and a vital part of their job."

TEACHER nervousness about being falsely accused of something was getting in the way of doing their job.

"For a child who is upset, sometimes a cuddle can solve the issue and you can get on with teaching.

"If we stopped panicking, I'm sure more men would be entering the profession."

NZEI president Colin Tarr said the code was vital to keeping staff and students safe from false allegations. Since it was introduced in the late 1990s, vexatious or unfounded complaints had decreased significantly.

He agreed the guidelines were "cautious" but it was important to safeguard against a small minority of people who were prone to making false allegations.

"NZEI did not create the climate of panic around child safety. What we are doing is responding to it. Our job is to ensure our staff are safe."

The guidelines did not mean teachers were "cold and distant". They could still have "warm, respectful and responsive" relationships with students, he said.

Mr Neville's case would certainly not help the profession to attract more male teachers, Mr Tarr said, but he didn't think it would cause existing ones to leave.

Though it would be good to have a workforce more representative of the community, the low proportion of men to women in the primary sector was nothing new, he said.

Pay parity with secondary school teaching, achieved in the late 90s, had encouraged more men to enter teaching, and the results of this would be seen in the next few years. Having a "more diverse" teaching staff would be preferable.

"We would like to have more men in teaching, but then we'd love to have more Maori teachers too."

Educational consultant Ian Livingstone said the lack of male teachers was a concern for New Zealand schools. Men were important role models to male pupils and had a lot to offer the profession.

"If there were more men in primary education, it would help boys achieve more highly. They would have more models or reference points to broaden their opinions and more role models in front of them."

Men were staying out of primary teaching primarily because of the low status of the job, including low pay and poor conditions. But the ever-present risk of being accused of sexual abuse was a "powerful disincentive to teach", Mr Livingstone said.

"But men teachers are not hopelessly vulnerable. They should hang in there and encourage more people to take on a more rewarding and valuable profession. They do a very important job."