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Pitfalls and Precautions: It’s unwise to take in loco parentis too far

April 25, 2017 Gaylene Schreiber, Secretary to ATA Professional Conduct Committee

Pitfalls and Precautions is a series that aims to educate teachers on professional conduct issues by highlighting situations addressed by the ATA Professional Conduct Committee. The committee dealt with the following case between May and August of 2016.

A teacher pleaded guilty to two charges of unprofessional conduct after taking a student on an outing to a nearby urban centre, during which the student sat in a drinking establishment with the teacher and later obtained a set of piercings.

The teacher was a close family friend of the student, and upon collecting the student from the piercing establishment, was asked to provide “parental permission” for the piercings. In order to hasten their departure, the teacher provided the permission and paid for the piercings when the student’s resources fell short. Upon returning to their hometown that same day, the teacher contacted the student’s parents to inform them of the day’s events.

Regarding penalty, the Professional Conduct Committee received and agreed with a joint submission requesting that both charges be addressed with a letter of severe reprimand. The committee considered several mitigating circumstances, including the teacher’s remorse, the fact that the lapse in judgment was a singular event, the teacher’s efforts to immediately inform the parents, and the fact that the family-friend relationship was longstanding and predated the teacher-student relationship.

Nonetheless, the committee noted that, through his actions, the teacher failed to uphold the honour and dignity of the profession and to be considerate of the student’s circumstances during the events.

Teachers have long understood that in certain instances they are bound by the legal concept of in loco parentis.

As outlined in the Alberta Teachers’ Association document Teachers’ Rights, Responsibilities and Legal Liabilities, the concept of teachers acting in loco parentis has gradually evolved through legal precedent. This means that teachers stand, in relation to students, in the position of caring parents, as unofficial guardians.

This concept not only allows a teacher some of the privileges of a parent but also brings with it added responsibilities for the protection of pupils. Thus, a teacher could be liable for damage caused to a pupil where the teacher’s conduct falls below the standard of care commonly accepted as being reasonable in a parent-child relationship. A teacher may even have to meet a higher standard of care in cases where special knowledge makes the teacher aware of dangers that the parent might not appreciate.

However, a teacher is not and should never claim to be a student’s legal parent or guardian, for to do so may fail to maintain the honour and dignity of the profession and fails to treat a pupil with dignity and respect and in consideration of his or her circumstances. ❚

Read more Pitfalls and Precautions articles here.

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