Monthly Archive for October, 2009

Cease and Desist (C&D) Letters to Parents


Sometimes parents are seriously discouraged from pursuing complaints or criticism through receipt of cease and desist letters from a School Board, teacher union, or other public service union related to schools.  Here is an interesting article:

Goliaths vs. Davids
Teachers’ unions suing parents
By Andrew Nikiforuk
Canadian Family, March 2005, p. 28

In Alberta and British Columbia, two powerful teachers’ unions are suing parents for defamation. Although both unions claim to champion the downtrodden, the lawsuits also deliver another, less comforting message. The targets of both of these actions are blue-collar families whose alleged defamations arose in the course of advocating for their children’s education.

Let’s begin with Dawna McGowan, a 42-year-old mom and former school volunteer in Hinton, Alta. The Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) is suing her and her husband, Ken, a Canadian Pacific engineer, for $210,000 and has placed a lien on their home. It started when McGowan challenged a principal for releasing pupil information to a photographer. Before long, things turned ugly.

She is now one of four Albertans being jointly sued by the ATA for defamation. After defendants received unusual "cease and desist" letters from the ATA in 2001, they contacted Denis Lapierre, a longtime parent advocate who posted the letters on his website, Schoolworks!_now shut down. Deluged with support and inquiries, they posted other items on the site, explaining parents’ respective complaints. Though none accused a specific teacher or school district of offensive behaviour, the ATA deemed the material defamatory to the profession and sued Lapierre and the four for $1.8 million.

Robyn Reid, a single mother with three special-needs boys in Red Deer, still can’t believe the union’s tough stance. After one of her sons had been placed in a special-needs class, Reid identified several educational gaps in his program. When the local school and school district refused to provide extra tutoring, she took her case to the province. "I wasn’t out to get teachers, I was out to get the right education for my child," she says. The ATA disagreed to the tune of $150,000. One of the sued parents has already declared bankruptcy.

For posting the original letters, Lapierre is facing a lawsuit of more than $1 million. He’s shut down his advocacy business and his website. "The purpose of the lawsuit is to silence us, and it has worked," says Lapierre, who now drives a truck and can’t afford his legal bills.

Sue Halstead, a mother of five children in Comox Valley, B.C., agrees. The well-known child advocate operates a feisty website that among other posted criticisms, dares to itemize the behaviour of teachers who have been criminally charged or disciplined by the profession. Her site is still active but now displays several apologies since her receipt of a "cease and desist" letter. But neither apologies nor the removal of the offending documents stopped nine teachers, a former trustee and a parent represented by the British Columbia Teacher’s Federation (BCTF) from suing Halstead last spring for "using the internet to wage a personal attack on certain participants in the B.C. education system." That’s already cost Halstead $23,000, and she and her husband, a school janitor, can’t afford a lawyer for her trial. "We’re going to lose our house, and all I tried to do was tell the truth and protect children," she says.

Neither of these lawsuits strikes me as wise or civil, not to mention just, Terri Watson, president of the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, describes the BCTF’s legal action as "inappropriate" and operating with a "clear imbalance of power and resources." Democratic institutions such as schools, she adds, need people like
Halstead to test the system and foster improvement.

Jinny Sims president of the BCTF, counters that the suit against Halstead was in no way launched lightly and is "not about pitting one parent against the might of the BCTF. It’s about defending our members, who are being damaged in their work and personal lives." Dr. Gordon Thomas, executive secretary of the ATA, admits that his association is "not ecstatic about representing teachers in a defamation suit" and notes that it has launched only two such actions in the past 82 years. "What we are after is the fair representation of our teachers."

The ATA claims that one of its primary mandates is "to arouse and increase public interest in the importance of education." The BCTF makes similar claims. But how do these lawsuits support that goal, let alone help children? To restore civility to the educational arena, both provinces need to set up an ombudsman’s office, where parents and educators can hash out their differences on equal ground. When teacher unions start suing parents, the behave more like punitive corporations than enlightened public organizations. Strangling dissent, even allegedly hurtful dissent, doesn’t strengthen education any more than it strengthens democracy.