When accusations of assault or abuse are made against teachers in Cayman Islands classrooms, education officials walk a fine line between protecting their staff against potentially false accusations and ensuring the safety of the children.
The issue came to the fore again last week when it emerged that a teacher at Sir John A. Cumber Primary School had been placed on required leave amid allegations that he threw a chair, injuring a child in a classroom incident.
Officials confirmed that this was the second incident at the same school this academic year.
Another teacher is on required leave following an incident in November, Principal Paul Samuel said.
Both incidents are being investigated by police.
Across the school system, a total of three teachers are on required leave while allegations against them are investigated.
Chief Officer in the Ministry of Education Christen Suckoo acknowledged that officials are reluctant to put out too much information publicly in such cases.
He said the ministry’s first duty is to the children, but they are also aware of the potential impact of such accusations on a teacher’s career, particularly if the allegations turn out to be false, frivolous or even the result of genuine misunderstanding.
Speaking generally, he said, “You have to understand that just because an allegation is made doesn’t mean that something has happened. These things impact not just the alleged victim, but the person who is accused to have done something wrong. You have to balance the need to provide information with respecting the privacy in a small community.”
“If you have an allegation of something like this happening, there [are] going to be some people who support the teacher and others who do not. The question for us is always ‘where do we balance it?’ Out of an abundance of caution, we use required leave to remove that person from the classroom.”
Adding an another layer of complexity is the legal requirement under the new Children Law for all reports of abuse to be reported to social services.
That means that when an allegation is made, schools do not typically carry out their own investigations. They place the teacher on required leave while the Department of Children and Family Services and the police investigate.
“What you are seeing is the Children Law being put into effect in our schools – any kind of allegation of abuse of any kind is reported immediately as it relates to any of our children,” said Cetonya Cacho, deputy chief officer in the Ministry of Education. “Their needs and their safety are our priority. We hope not to have several incidents in all of our schools, but what we want to know is that if something occurs, no one is hesitating to report it.”
Mr. Suckoo acknowledged that that exposes teachers to the risk of frivolous or malicious accusations. But he said that was unavoidable.
“If you heard a teacher assaulted a student and we left [that] teacher in the classroom, would you be satisfied with that? You wouldn’t,” he said. “Our job is to report; the Children Law requires us to report it … out of an abundance of caution you have to ensure the environment is safe.”
The consequences for falsely accused teachers can be magnified in Cayman, where the small community rumor mill inevitably leads to details spilling into the public domain.
For expatriate teachers on short-term contracts, there are other impacts.
In 2015 a teacher from John Gray High School was accused of indecent assaults against three students who said he had touched them inappropriately during class.
He was placed on required leave as the investigation proceeded and was later cleared in court. However, his contract had run out while the court proceedings played out, and it was not renewed.
Jon Clark, principal at John Gray High School, speaking generally rather than about any specific case, said schools have a duty to put child safety above all else.
“What we don’t do is get in there and start questioning the child. Because there is so much at stake, we have to take it seriously. Once an allegation is made, it has to be reported and investigated,” he said.
He said the staff member has to be placed on required leave while the professionals carry out their investigation.
“What we hope is that those investigations can take place swiftly in the best interests of the child and the staff member.”
He said teachers receive training to limit their risk of being falsely accused, for example by not being in a room alone with a child.
“In some respects it would be very easy for a child to be upset with a teacher, maybe because they got a low result on a test, and to make a complaint about them. Thankfully, those kinds of cases are few and far between. I think everyone understands the seriousness of that including the children.”
Despite the two recent incidents, Mr. Samuel, who took over as principal of Sir John. A Cumber in September, said he does not believe there is a wider problem at the school.
“Obviously these incidents are not what we want to see in our school,” he said. “That goes without saying, but if you are asking ‘am I concerned about the behaviors I see between staff and students in the school?’ generally the answer is no.”
Officials acknowledge there are times when teachers have to physically intervene to prevent a child from hurting themselves or another student. They believe that by following guidelines set out in the new Education Law and by ensuring their response is proportionate, teachers can protect themselves against accusations of assault.
Mr. Samuel added, “Irrespective of where you are working, you will always be challenged in terms of student behavior ….
“If you do feel the need to handle a child, the reporting procedures that follow are crucial to keep staff safe. Managing behavior is always going to be difficult. Staff constantly need new training in that and we’ve been doing that.”