Drug-taking and driving no-no... primary school teacher fired

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Drug-taking and driving no-no... primary school teacher fired

A South Australian primary school teacher was validly dismissed after driving a car while under the influence of methamphetamine.

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A South Australian primary school teacher was validly dismissed after being found guilty in July 2015 on two counts of driving a car while under the influence of methamphetamine.

Background and facts


Renee McManus, a teacher at Seaford Primary School, was charged in late 2014. She failed to inform her supervisor on the basis of legal advice that road traffic offences that did not carry with them an obligation of disclosure to her employer.

In April 2015, the Principal of the school said that her employer, the South Australian Department for Education and Child Development, had become aware that she had been charged. Ms McManus was directed to stay away from the workplace. She was later informed by letter that she would be suspended from duty without remuneration pending the outcome of the prosecution and any internal workplace investigation.

Ms McManus reponded by post conceding that her behaviour was unacceptable. But, she argued, a dismissal would be manifestly excessive as the offences were, in her view, of a minimal and isolated nature; that she had a long record of proficient service (she began working as a teacher in 1996); and that she suffered financial loss because of a long period of suspension without pay.

Her marriage unexpectedly broke down in 2011, which exposed her to a series of consequent stressors, such as financial stress. She added that she had been suffering from symptoms of what was later diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”) because she had been a victim of domestic violence. Approximately a year after her husband walked out, she began a relationship with a new man who beat her over a two-year period.

Suspension and dismissal


In late September 2016, after her conviction, the Chief Executive of the Department for Education and Child Development in South Australia wrote to Ms McManus stating that she had engaged in criminal conduct, that she was obliged to report the charges to her supervisor, and that she did not do so. He found that her conduct contravened the Code of Ethics and that it was serious, willful, disgraceful and improper conduct contrary to s26 of the Education Act. The Chief Executive stated that it was his intention to dismiss Ms McManus and sought her responses before he actually did so.

She responded via her lawyers, repeating and expanding upon her earlier comments. However, the Chief Executive considered that her use of methamphetamine was incompatible with the standards expected of a public sector employee particularly as she was a teacher working with children.

Ms McManus was dismissed by letter on 01 November 2016.

She appealed that decision to the Teachers Appeal Board. The case was, for various reasons, transferred to the South Australian Employment Tribunal before Deputy President Judge Hannon.

The legal questions


Judge Hannon concluded that, as there was no dispute over the facts, the issue before the Tribunal was what inferences and conclusions should be drawn from the teacher's conduct and the weight to be given to the various mitigating circumstances.

It was also necessary to consider the meaning of "disgraceful or improper", which give cause for the Chief Executive to take disciplinary action under s26 of the Education Act, was considered. That section empowers an appropriate person to carry out a range of disciplinary actions, including dismissal, against a teacher. 

There was also a question of whether her failure to report the charges to her supervisor could be considered as disgraceful and improper conduct.

If the conduct of Ms McManus was disgraceful and improper then it would have to be decided whether dismissal was warranted.

Held by the court


Judge Hannon reviewed a wide body of cases as to the meaning of "disgraceful or improper".

Typically, it waas described (in various ways) as conduct that was so wrong that it deserved to be punished. Several cases also stated that the importance of protecting the public, the public service, and the bodies that provide those services, was so important that it justified the regulation and enforcement of the private conduct of public employees.

The judge ruled that Ms McManus was bound by the behavioural and ethical standards applicable to being a teacher within the State public sector. They expressly provide that a public sector employee would not “at any time” act in a way in which a reasonable person would view as bringing them, the agency in which they work, the public sector, or the Government into disrepute. The fact that the methamphetamine use occurred out of hours and did not cause any harm to students, and was a reaction to significant personal issues, did not detract from its seriousness.

Accordingly, the conduct of Ms McManus was both disgraceful and improper.

It was also ruled by the judge that the failure to advise her manager at the earliest opportunity that she was charged with road traffic offences was not serious enough to be disgraceful or improper conduct.

Judge Hannon then looked at the question of whether Ms McManus' conduct warranted dismissal under s26 of the Education Act.

"The response to the conduct must be appropriate to the circumstances, and despite the understandable level of opprobrium the conduct attracts, should not offend what is fair and reasonable or be beyond what is a required response to the circumstances and culpability of the misconduct," the judge said.

Judge Hannon noted that there were a range of disciplinary options open to the Chief Executive, short of dismissal, and Ms McManus had put forward a number of mitigating factors.

However, the judge agreed with the Chief Executive that the conduct involved a significant breach of trust and confidence. The judge also agreed that there would be a highly adverse reaction among parents and the school community to a teacher who took methamphetamine remaining in her role, and that there is a general purpose of maintaining a proper standard of efficiency and competence in the teaching service. Judge Hannon also expressed reservations as to the level of insight that Ms McManus had as to the seriousness of her conduct. The judge concluded that it would be inappropriate to return Ms McManus to the teaching profession.

"This is a tragic outcome for the applicant and a significant loss to the community of a skilled teacher who performed her duties admirably until her personal difficulties derailed her career. Nevertheless ... I consider the applicant’s conduct was so inconsistent with the standards expected of an officer of the teaching service that any penalty short of dismissal is capable of fundamentally undermining the integrity of the teaching service and the confidence of the community that the standards expected of teaching officers would be upheld," Judge Hannon said.

He accordingly concluded that the termination of the employment of Ms McManus was appropriate and then dismissed her appeal.

McManus v Chief Executive, Department for Education and Child Development [2017] SAET 89 (11 August 2017)
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