Misgendering Students Can Be Professional Misconduct

In the so-called culture wars these days, there can be highly politicized debates around transgender rights and the proper use of pronouns. In Ontario, these debates are without legal basis, as gender identity and gender expression are protected grounds under the Human Rights Code.

Under some misguided notion of challenging students to think critically, there are teachers who reiterate the talking points of both sides of such culture wars, but do so at their own peril.

A recent decision by the Discipline Committee in Ontario College of Teachers v Teal illustrates the regulatory context in the educational setting.

The Member in this case is an Inactive/Non-Practicing member, and an Ontario Certified Teacher, who refused to refer to two students who requested to be referred to by a preferred name.

The teacher then engaged in discourse that involved challenging the students’ own identity, and interjecting religious and moral concepts into the discussion. They provided one of the students an article on the topic, unrelated to the curriculum, which had a negative impact on the student’s emotional and psychological well-being. The teacher even went as far as sending inappropriate emails to the Principal and Vice-Principal about the students before being terminated.

The Panel concluded that the conduct in question contravened Ontario Regulation 437/97, and section 26 of the College’s by-laws, which prescribes the Ethical Standards and the Standards of Practice for the Teaching ProfessionThe Ethical Standards make reference to human dignity and emotional wellness, and the Standards incorporate professional knowledge and practice.

The behaviour therefore constituted professional misconduct, and the committee concluded that the acts “would reasonably be regarded by members as disgraceful, dishonourable or unprofessional,”

[13] …The trust that parents, students and the public place in teachers is undermined when members fail to acknowledge and treat non gender conforming students equitably at school.

The repeated conduct was an aggravating factor, as it occurred repeatedly over a prolonged period and was clearly intentional. The Panel imposed a reprimand and a 3-month suspension, as well as instruction regarding appropriate classroom communication with an emphasis on fostering diversity and inclusion.

While teachers and others may be entitled to their own beliefs in their private lives, when they are operating in a professional context, and in particular in the trust of vulnerable children, beliefs that contravene human rights should be completely removed.

This decision will hopefully foster greater inclusion in educational spaces, but also illustrates how regulatory colleges can and should implement human rights principles in the application of ethical and professional codes of conduct.

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