How anonymous complaints ended an award-winning teacher’s career


The Sir Robert Borden high school teacher went home after he learned he was under investigation by the school board. He still doesn’t know who toppled the career he loved.

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Richard Smith taught core French for 23 years. He won awards and travelled the world teaching the accelerated integrated method, a methodology for teaching a second language known as AIM.

AIM is a particularly kinetic way of teaching. It involves gestures and motions for every part of speech from nouns to verb tenses. Smith follows a script of gestures. He smooths his hair to indicate a feminine noun and twirls an imaginary moustache for a masculine noun, for example.

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“I use my hands to initially teach the kids to speak French. You’re looking and you’re learning. It accelerates the learning of a language,” says Smith, who discovered AIM in 2004.

The gesturing is used for the first few months of the class and eventually disappears. There were no desks in his classroom, only stools. Smith incorporated plays and hip-hop music into his classes.

Smith taught at six schools throughout his career, spending his last five years at Ottawa’s Sir Robert Borden High School. He was a French coach, helping other core French teachers. He has flown to Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam and Japan to help other teachers learn AIM. He won the Helen B. St. John Award for outstanding professional contribution and leadership from the Ontario Modern Languages Teachers’ Association in 2019.

Smith loved what he was doing and was within a year of retirement. But then it all came crashing down on Nov. 2, 2022, when his principal called him into his office and read from a sheet of paper that “concerns had been reported with respect to your conduct towards students.”

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Among the allegations: that Smith has demonstrated the French word arrête (stop) by putting his palm close to a student’s face “which made them feel uncomfortable,” that he physically pulled a student’s hands out of their pockets and that he had referred to a student from Ukraine as “Ukrainian girl.”

It was also alleged that Smith referred to students as “stupid,” that he said newcomer students were holding back the whole class and that he sent students to the hallway or the office if they spoke English in class.

The letter evoked a board procedure called PR.542, which would be used to resolve the matter. There was no date or letterhead on the letter, and no indication of who had made the accusations, says Smith.

He had never heard of PR.542 and had never been accused of misconduct towards students before. He was shocked and bewildered. “I actually said to him, ‘This is a joke, right?’”

Smith called his union immediately after the meeting with the principal and was asked whether he was being sent home. The answer was no.

Smith taught his next two classes and showed the letter to a colleague. “He said ‘Dude, you should go home.’”

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“I sent myself home,” says Smith.

While he was under investigation, Smith was paid to stay at home.

For teachers, being “sent home” is synonymous with being under investigation.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board currently employs about 14,000 staff members. As of February, there were about 22 employees on home assignment.

“The OCDSB has a legal duty of care and responsibility for the safety, protection and well-being of all students,” says Darcy Knoll, a spokesperson for the school board. “We take this mandate extremely seriously.”

Placing an employee on home assignment is not disciplinary, but is for the protection of the student and the employee while this process takes place, says Knoll. Employees may also be placed on home assignments where there are allegations of workplace harassment or other conduct that could impact the safety of students or staff members.

“In the event of allegations concerning employee misconduct towards a student, our focus is on promoting the best interests, protection and well-being of the child, youth or adult student,” he says.

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At the same time, we recognize that where an employee is accused, that person is entitled to due process, including the right to confidentiality insofar as it is within the control of the board.”

Teachers who have been through an investigation, however, say they are baffled by the process and are stressed out by being “investigated” on allegations they believe should be simple to hash out with colleagues or administrators.

“They’re going after us for all of these trivial things that could be handled face-to-face,” says Randy Leafloor, a Woodroffe High School teacher who went on medical leave shortly after the conclusion of a months-long investigation.

“I can’t tell you how many kids we’ve helped over the years. It means nothing.”

During the 2021-23 school year, six classroom teachers at Ottawa’s Pinecrest Elementary School were sent home under investigation and several occasional teachers hired to replace regular teachers left suddenly, former teacher Michael Sternberg and several other sources have confirmed to this newspaper.  

Some older students roamed the halls during class time, bullied other students, intimidated staff, and ignored requests to follow basic rules like not using their cell phones, Sternberg told this newspaper. 

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The school board’s Office of the Human Rights and Equity Advisor began an investigation into what it said “appears to be a poisoned working and learning environment at Pinecrest,” according to an email sent to staff on April 6, 2022, from a staff member working in that office.

The Ottawa Carleton District School Board has denied this newspaper access to the report, saying it “includes personal information related to employment matters and, in accordance with privacy legislation, will not be made public.”

The board also declined to say how many Pinecrest staff members were sent home to be investigated and what happened to them.

In an audio recording of an emotional September 2023 staff meeting at Pinecrest, obtained by this newspaper, Superintendent Shannon Smith told staff that those who were part of the misconduct process “because of complaints that were received from staff, students and parents.”

She also brought up PR. 542.

“The gossip and rumours that were spread unfortunately by some of those in the staff painted a very inaccurate picture of what was happening and it created heightened fear amongst staff members,” she told staff at the meeting.

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“Because of that …. we have procedure 542, which deals with staff misconduct.”

PR. 542 is an eight-page document dating back to 1998, last updated in 2002.

It defines not just physical and sexual misconduct — matters which may also fall under the Criminal Code and can result in a loss of standing with the Ontario College of Teachers —  but also “emotional misconduct.”

“Emotional misconduct is emotional harm or neglect based on power and control,” according to PR.542.

“Emotional abuse involves an attack on the child’s sense of self and usually co-exists with other types of abuse. Continually insulting, humiliating or rejecting a child or saying a child is ‘stupid’ or ‘bad’, can harm a child’s sense of self-worth and confidence. Other forms of emotional abuse include social isolation, intimidation, and exploitation.”

The document has been used with increased frequency in recent years, say some teachers. The OCDSB has two investigations advisors who deal with alleged employee misconduct toward students.

The advisors are responsible for the implementation of the board’s policy and procedure dealing with alleged misconduct, providing advice to principals, managers and superintendents on how to “effectively respond to employee misconduct or other forms of culpable behaviour, and with respect to child protection matters as they relate to alleged staff conduct,” according to a recent job posting. The job pays between $83,100 and $97,800 a year.

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Meanwhile, teachers who have been under investigation say they have not been allowed to seek guidance or legal advice, aside from their union representatives, who are not experts in labour matters.

What’s worse, the teachers say, is that they’re warned the matter is to be kept confidential and they may not speak to other teachers about it, isolating them further.

“I asked my union rep: ‘OK, let me get this straight. We live in Canada, and you’re telling me I don’t have the right to use my own voice to speak?’ ” says Leafloor.

“She says, ‘Yeah, they can do that.’  I said ‘That’s absolutely ridiculous.’ “

Leafloor didn’t comply.

Leafloor’s story is this: He taught a co-op program for special needs students at Woodroffe High School. The co-op element had been cancelled because of the pandemic and he and his teaching partner were coaching the students on areas such as preparing for interviews.

After mainstream students returned to the school, the class continued online. The sessions were recorded, says Leafloor. But on the second day, in February 2021, he got a call from his principal telling him to return to work in person, and that there would be a meeting with the superintendent. He was told he should call his union.

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Leafloor says believed he had the vice-principal’s permission to continue teaching online. He admits there was a misunderstanding and he had failed to do his due diligence, but it wasn’t in bad faith.

He was not sent home, but the investigation process lasted six months, including three meetings with the principal and superintendent, Leafloor says. The recordings of his online teaching sessions were not available, and he couldn’t prove that he had been teaching for the prescribed number of minutes.

“There was zero compassion in that room. Zero. There was no desire to work with me, no desire to get my end of the story, no desire to problem-solve. It was just accuse and convict,” he says.

“At this point, I had been with the board for 27 years and had a clean record.”

At the end of it all, Leafloor says he ended up with a letter in his file. Meanwhile, after the investigation, Leafloor was no longer teaching special needs students—which he enjoyed—but would now be working in the mainstream. Feeling under a microscope on the job, he went on medical leave for shoulder surgery in September 2021 and never returned.

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He officially retired in February 2023.

Randy Leafloor
Retired Woodroffe High School teacher Randy Leafloor says he was under investigation for six months for a trivial infraction that could have been handled with a face-to-face discussion. Photo by Jean Levac /POSTMEDIA

It takes a lot of courage to bring forward a complaint, says Ottawa-based independent investigator Monique MacKinnon. However, the investigator also must determine that the complaint is not merely someone who is venting or seeking retribution for personal reasons.

There have been an increasing number of anonymous complaints, she said.

In her work as an independent investigator, MacKinnon has to determine whether a complaint is admissible. It depends on the policies, how they are written and how they are interpreted, she said. A policy has to be very specific. Allegations must also be specific. There is a diversity of backgrounds and personalities in every place of work and there has to be an understanding that some people can be triggered by different things.

“Students and staff need to have psychological safety in the workplace,” she says. “Otherwise issues can quickly escalate to become allegations.”

A lot of complaints I find right now are related to mental health, which is difficult to prove, says MacKinnon. “It’s like a grey area and it exacerbates issues. There’s the fact that more and more people are trauma-informed, or aware of the fact that you have to be sensitive to someone’s background. I think that’s why there are a lot more complaints.”

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And there has been a change in work culture due to generational change.  Millennials and Gen Z want their employers to pay attention to their health and not treat them as numbers, she says.

“We all have to be on the same page about what something means. And we talk it through. You can’t just make assumptions about something, even when you are talking to a client. There is going to be some misinterpretation sometimes. And this is so much about open communication.”

Technology has changed the ways people interact and tone may be misperceived, especially when writing. “I find now a lot of the way people are working is through email. That is liable to bring misunderstandings in,” says MacKinnon.

The first place you will find out about the health of an organization is through the employees, she adds.

“I think there needs to be sensitivity towards students and towards teachers. It needs to be reciprocal.”

Board investigations are not the same as those conducted by the Ontario College of Teachers, which licenses teachers in the province. The college investigates complaints from various sources, including members of the public and optional reports made by employers, as well as mandatory reports made by employers in compliance with the requirements of the Ontario College of Teachers Act.

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Complaints to the college about teachers can lead to a college investigation into allegations that have previously been investigated by another organization, such as an employer, says Elena Morena, a spokesperson for the Ontario College of Teachers. On their own, however, employer investigations don’t affect a teacher’s standing with the college.

Richard Smith, for example, is still listed by the college on its public register as being in good standing.

But he’s not teaching anymore.

Smith remembers how he was “interrogated” within 24 hours of receiving the six anonymous accusations. He has no idea where three of the allegations came from and says the other three were taken out of context.

As part of his teaching method, Smith walked students out of the classroom for a moment when they spoke English and brought them back in to indicate that only French is spoken in the classroom. The palm outward gesture is used to teach the French word “arrête” for “stop.”

He found the experience of being under investigation draining and mentally exhausting. Anxious and stressed, he decided to retire at the end of 2022.

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He still wrestles with understanding how allegations from an unnamed accuser could push him to leave a career he loved.

“I just had enough of the waiting and being sick to my stomach and trying to figure out what happened. Because I had a great career. I just decided it wasn’t worth it and I was done.”

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