Teacher fights law with no room for tolerance
June 25, 2005
'That Mr Phillips (left) has not simply ccepted the fate dealt to him is
not surprising to those who know him.'
A police check led Andrew Phillips to court this week as he fights to win back his job. Chee Chee Leung reports.
Last year, teachers at Orbost Secondary College were faced with a trio of year 8 students whose attendance at school was patchy.
Even though the students frequently skipped classes, they always turned up for maths with teacher Andrew Phillips.
"Their attendance at school was very spasmodic . . . but they never missed his classes," says principal John Brazier. "He would chase them up, he would say, 'Where were you yesterday?' They respected him."
Mr Brazier says this persistence partly explains why Mr Phillips is fighting the loss of his job under the state's no-tolerance laws on teachers found guilty of child sex offences.
"He's pretty determined," Mr Brazier says. "It's the principle of the thing. He feels a grave injustice has been committed."
It was meant to be a good year for the Phillips family. The 33-year-old teacher and his wife had settled into a house in Marlo, near his home town of Orbost, and were expecting their second child. Mr Phillips was due to begin an ongoing teaching position at Orbost.
But the plans were dramatically altered when he picked up a newspaper in January and read about a teacher being suspended after a criminal record check showed a prior sexual offence. Later that day he was notified that he was the teacher.
The police check uncovered that as a 20-year-old he had pleaded guilty to the sexual assault of a minor, a 15-year-old girl, in 1992 - before he became a teacher. He received a good-behaviour bond and no conviction was recorded.
The case shot to prominence in March after Mr Brazier publicly called for his teacher's reinstatement. Many in the community backed the call for the law to include discretion, including Labor and conservative politicians and Victoria's Chief Commissioner of police.
But Premier Steve Bracks and Education Minister Lynne Kosky were unwavering in their support of the law, which is retrospective and requires the dismissal of any teacher involved in a sexual offence with a child. Shadow education minister Victor Perton and Parents Victoria also supported that position.
Most information about the offence has come from Mr Phillips' supporters, who say the girl was "almost 16" and he was "just 20". According to his sister, the charge involved consensual touching of the girl's breasts.
But in April, Ms Kosky said Education Department advice showed that if discretion was part of the law, the man could still not teach in Victoria.
Mr Phillips resigned before he was dismissed, but the Australian Education Union's Victorian branch president, Mary Bluett, says he wanted to fight the law from the very beginning.
She says it was radio comments from the Premier in March in which he incorrectly referred to Mr Phillips as a convicted child sex offender that partly renewed his determination to challenge the law.
He has flagged the possibility of suing for defamation and has told Ms Bluett that he decided to fight for his job because he loved teaching and because the job loss threatened his dream of raising his family in Orbost.
This week a legal application by Mr Phillips to set aside his deregistration and prevent the teaching ban was brought before the Supreme Court for a directions hearing. The action is against the Victorian Institute of Teaching, the state and the secretary of the Department of Education and Training. The case returns to court in September.
In an affidavit, Mr Phillips says: "For more than five years, I believe I discharged my responsibilities as a teacher diligently and professionally. At the time of my termination and deregistration, I believe I enjoyed the confidence and support of my colleagues and my community to continue to serve as a teacher."
The defendants have declined to comment while the matter is before the court.
Besides the court action, an unfair dismissal claim remains unresolved before the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. Mr Phillips is also prepared to challenge a ruling preventing him from receiving WorkCover.
Education observers say it has been a long time since there has been such interest in a teacher's fight against the state. Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals president Andrew Blair says he cannot recall there ever being a public showdown of this type. "It's the most high-profile case that I can remember of a teacher fighting what he and the community believes is an injustice," he says.
Ms Bluett says the last time there was such support within the profession for individual teachers was in the 1970s when teachers went on strike over the dismissals of Helen Rawicki and Helen Garner, the writer, who the union claimed had been sacked without due process.
That Mr Phillips has not simply accepted the fate dealt to him is not surprising to those who know him, including Peter Rock, principal at Cobden Technical School where he landed his first teaching job. "I would say Andrew is obviously a dogged person who, if he thinks a wrong has been done, he will certainly fight it," says Mr Rock, who was assistant principal when Mr Phillips taught there.
"I liked the fact that he never just accepted things, that he was the sort of person who would come into my office and say: 'I think we need to do this better'," he says. "My daughter will be at this school next year and I would be delighted for him to teach her if he was still here."
Mr Phillips is on unemployment benefits. He says he could not have pursued his legal options without the support - including financial help - from his family. The union is funding the court application and the unfair dismissal claim.
"Part of him wants to keep on fighting, another part of him thinks it's occupying a lot of time and emotional energy," Ms Bluett says. "Sometimes he just wants it to be over . . . other times he is quite determined to make sure the case is pushed as far as it can so it's put on the record, regardless of the outcome."
Note: The publisher does not state the name of this excellently written story.