Exploiting Ontario’s Snitch-Line®

My mentor Allan Blakeney often said that two questions should be asked about any proposed law, regulation, or policy. The first is “what is it intended to do?” The second is, “what else will it do?”

The Ford Government set up its snitch-line to enable parents to complain about teachers who are straying from the now-mandated sex-ed curriculum from the previous century. But if you look carefully at it, it is implemented much more broadly. The URL says the page is “for the parents” but there is nothing that says anyone other than parents can’t use it. It is also defined very broadly asking you to “share your concerns about the curriculum currently being taught.”

Notice that your email address is optional. There is also a “Notice and Consent” section at the bottom that says that any personal information you submit will be used by the government for the purpose of consultation. I wanted to check out exactly what that means, so I sent an email to the public servant named on the page. About two weeks later I got an answer back from the Ministry of Education. They told me that:

  • “No identifying information is captured when the form is submitted.  Personal data is only captured if an individual fills in the optional email box or provides personal data in the comment box.
  • Names and email addresses will not be associated with the data as it is being reviewed, the only exception is if an individual identified themselves in the comment box.
  • Names and email addresses will not be used for any other purpose.”

So if you don’t submit personal information, you won’t be tracked.

Here’s where it gets interesting. It took a clever 15 year-old two minutes to realize that this meant that, if a student didn’t like a teacher for whatever reason, the student could submit numerous anonymous complaints about that teacher, since the source of the complaints won’t be tracked. Of course, the student wouldn’t want to submit too many (more than the number of students in the class), as that might look suspicious. But numerous complaints would raise suspicion, lead to some sort of investigation, and generally make life uncomfortable for the unpopular teacher.

The snitch-line was designed in haste to satisfy a political imperative. As a university instructor, it’s obvious to me that the snitch-line is not at all comparable to our course evaluation systems, which have been thoughtfully and carefully developed over many years. For example, the systems are now online and allow only students taking a course to provide feedback, and to do so only once.

It would be interesting to see what sort of feedback the snitch-line is receiving. In principle, with appropriate redaction to protect individuals both commenting and being commented about, a summary report could be made available. It’s very doubtful that a government that will not release mandate letters would report to the public on the feedback the snitch-line receives. Hopefully, the Ontario College of Teachers, which is also seeing the feedback, will. Failing that, a Freedom of Information request would be appropriate. The people should know what the people are saying.

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