The final report details 23 recommendations, including that the ACT Government review its complaint handling processes, employ full-time social and youth workers in every school and amend the ACT Crimes Act to make clear that violence and bullying in schools is subject to legal enforcement.
The Standing Committee conducting the inquiry heard shocking allegations from parents, including one case in which a deputy principal dismissed well-founded concerns about a child’s mental health.
“He was coming home from school having angry outbursts and telling us it was OK, because he would chop his head off and kill himself,” the parent, who has not been publicly identified, told the Committee.
“On one occasion he took a bread knife out of the [drawer] holding it to his throat as he said it. I spoke to the deputy principal about what was happening and he commented ‘well we all know he won’t achieve anything with a butter knife’.
“I could not believe the flippant response and I approached one of the school psychologists about the issue. He advised me to see a private psychologist.”
Some parents accused the Education Directorate of ignoring serious complaints.
“We have previously written to the Directorate to advise them of the ongoing harassment our daughter was receiving and they ignored our email, the abuse my daughter received was not just the assault at the start of last year it was all year!” one submission reads.
“She would be verbally abused, told to kill herself, kicked in the back, chairs kicked out from under her, a rubbish bin tipped on her head!!!!!! [sic] Basically, her life was hell, it was relentless. The teachers were not able to stop any of it nor were they able to minimise the abuse from happening.
“We wrote to the directorate and requested compensation for medical expenses and were advised that [neither] the school nor the teachers were at fault so therefore they are not liable.”
The Standing Committee found that although incidents of bullying and violence in schools were uncommon, they were sometimes not handled adequately due to poor “communication, reporting and data collection factors”.
Many of the families who made submissions to the inquiry found their schools’ responses frustrating, inadequate and disappointing.
One parent told the Committee that both their school and the Directorate dismissed their family's concerns and even "harassed" them in an attempt to have them change schools.
Another parent said that their school and the Directorate ‘trivialised’ an incident of bullying and the impact it had on their child.
They said that the school insisted their son was fine, despite him throwing up from the stress of having to go to school. The school rejected the advice of two psychologists who indicated the boy needed ongoing counselling, the parent said.
Most of these families moved their kids to other schools, with two even going so far as to enrol in schools outside the territory.
The Committee recommended that the Government review existing complaints handling processes and ensure that parents and students are able to escalate their complaints and have them heard externally if necessary.
ACT Education Minister Yvette Berry highlighted the Standing Committee’s finding that bullying in the territory is infrequent.
“There is no place for bullying or violence in ACT schools and I am reassured to have the Committee’s confirmation that this is not a systemic problem in our schools,” Berry said.
“The report confirms that ‘schools experience the same challenges as other parts of society in relation to bullying and violence’. Schools are also not isolated from social issues like bullying or violence faced in the wider community and everyone, particularly community leaders, have a responsibility to change our culture for the better.”
Berry added that the Territory Government is already pursuing initiatives aligned with some of the Standing Committee’s recommendations and said that she “welcome[s] the Committee’s endorsement of the government’s work”.
The Government will formally respond to the Committee’s report in the future.
Acting shadow education minister Andrew Wall said that the report’s findings raised serious concerns, The Canberra Times reported.
"I think [Berry] has lost the trust of the community when it comes to this issue," Wall said.
"Her tenure in the role has been one of poor performance ... she is simply not up for the job."
Berry rejected Wall’s comments, telling reporters that she is “absolutely” fit to remain education minister.
"All my work that I have done is a perfect record of what I have been doing to address issues in ACT government schools and to make them even better places for students and teachers," Berry said.