Lessons from across the Border

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Lessons from across the Border

By Pavlina McMaster

The recently-released NSW Ombudsman’s Inquiry into behaviour management in schools report is damning and disturbing. It does not contain anything new, but firmly establishes that many students with disabilities, special needs, and out-of-home-care needs continue to be victimised and abused by school staff at many government and non-government schools.

How we respond to this report in Victoria will shape many children’s futures. We could deny that it is relevant to our State and our education system. We could ignore that the very same culture permeates our society and our institutions. We could lay blame on parents and on the students themselves. We could attempt to downplay the effects on the students. We could argue that the number of affected students is small (it is not).

We could even go so far as to say that in Victoria, no principal would make the mistake of disbelieving a story of abuse reported by a student or parent, that no principal would ever have less than the students’ best interests at heart, and that no principal would ever protect their staff over their students.

We would be wrong.

I have close friends who could tell you very different stories. Many of them are afraid to speak out, because their children are still in the education system, and they are concerned about their children being further victimised. Many others are afraid to speak out because they are now home educating, and they want to remain out of the VRQA’s crosshairs.

I am autistic, and my community is largely composed of autistic adults and autistic children. I know of what I speak.

I know children who have been locked in cupboards at school repeatedly, by the very people who are charged with their care, and whose parents are contacted by classmates’ parents who want to make sure they know about the practice – it has happened so often, the classmates are now talking about it at home repeatedly. I know children who have self-harmed in an attempt to do enough damage to their bodies that they will not have to go back to school. I know children who have tried to take their own lives because the stress caused by situations at school is just too much. The ways these children go about it is just so heartbreaking in itself that I cannot bear to even think about it, and some of these children are so small – five and six years old. Can you imagine the pain of living it?

Sometimes, the situation is not of anyone’s ‘making’, but is emotionally charged and divisive nonetheless. Relationships and communication can break down, and what is left are the ashes of a working relationship at the feet of a child who is stuck in a situation they cannot control.

Parents are told that their children must keep attending, or they will be charged with truancy. They are told there is no problem, and it is all in their child’s imagination. They are threatened with reports to Child Protective Services. They are told that home education is illegal in Victoria. They are told that they don’t have the right to take their children out of school. Ultimately, they are refused the right to protect their child in the only way they can – through removal.

These children have been failed by the one person who has the power to protect them at school – the school principal. Whatever has caused the lapse in duty of care is actually kind of irrelevant. Sometimes it is deliberate, and some principals are known to be hostile to home education, but I like to think that most of the time it is pure human error – misjudging the situation, believing the wrong people, not having enough information, being blinded by past experiences, being unsure of legal responsibilities and obligations…..

And yet, in Victoria we are currently facing the advent of regulations that remove the one, final act that can protect a vulnerable child. We are abolishing the right of parents to remove their child from school while they await approval for home education registration. If one principal makes a mistake and denies a child the right to wait at home for approval to home educate, it has potentially tragic consequences. If it costs the life of just one child, that is one child too many. At the very least, it costs their mental health, and that is priceless.

The NSW Ombudsman’s report has highlighted the strain that many humans are under in the education system – children and adults alike – and the hostility, mistreatment and abuse that children can suffer at school. We would be credulous indeed to believe that this does not happen in Victoria.

If James Merlino believes that humans are infallible, he is at best naive. Principals are human, and they make mistakes – sometimes grave ones. And if we believe that an appeal process will provide an adequate safety net, we are misguided. We cannot leave children in school while adults play bureaucratic games.

This is not something we can afford to get wrong. We need the disallowance motion on the Education and Training Reform Regulations 2017 – Part 6 Homeschooling to succeed. I will own to being emphatic, but I am not being dramatic when I say that children’s lives are at stake.

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