A parent who woke this morning to learn her daughter’s school had been referred to WorkSafe ACT by the teachers’ union and subsequently issued a prohibition notice for critical safety issues relating to violence, bullying and staff shortages said she is “livid”.
The mother of a year 8 student at Calwell High School – who wished to remain anonymous over concerns for her daughter’s safety – said she was initially told the school was moving to remote learning because of COVID-induced shortages.
The email sent to parents referenced the pandemic and “other challenges associated with maintaining a safe learning environment for all students and staff”.
This parent said the pandemic was accepted as an explanation.
But in actual fact, WorkSafe ACT inspectors had sent a large cohort of students home from the school after they discovered a violent, untenable and unsafe environment for both students and teachers last week.
“I’m absolutely livid … disgusted to say the least. I just don’t have any words,” she said.
“[The school] should have at least acknowledged what was happening. I don’t know how they thought we would never find out.”
According to a prohibition notice issued to the school on 31 March, inspectors had learned of teachers being subjected to sexualised behaviour, abuse and threats, and being regularly assaulted by students, including one who was left with a dislocated shoulder, several broken teeth, welts to the lower arm, and bruising to their back after trying to intervene to stop one student from assaulting another.
Students were found wandering the corridors with weapons and chronic staff shortages meant teachers were regularly taking classes of up to 40 students. In one instance, up to 75 students were supervised by one teacher and one learning support officer.
Teachers were described as “scared” of students, and one staff member locked themselves in a cupboard and cried uncontrollably due to work pressure.
The inspectors subsequently prohibited year 7 and 8 cohorts from attending the school premises until the school could rectify these issues.
The parent who spoke to Region Media knew there were issues with bullying and violence at the school, especially within the year 8 cohort, in which inspectors said “gangs” has formed.
Only two weeks ago, parents were notified that the school was put into lockdown and the police had to attend.
“At one point, my daughter was locked in a classroom so she could be kept safe from other students who wanted to hurt her. Other students stood around her and screamed they wanted to bash her,” she said.
“Every day when she goes to school, it’s fingers-crossed there are no issues.”
But the parent did not realise the breadth of the issue at the school.
Moving her daughter to a different school has crossed her mind, but she’s concerned her daughter will lose her friends.
“But now, I told her this morning, she’s not going back, even if she doesn’t go to school for the rest of this year.”
But finding another public high school in the area isn’t easy, and this parent acknowledged that might prove a challenge.
Minister for Education Yvette Berry was forced to defend the response of the Education Directorate and the government to some of these chronic issues at the school.
But Ms Berry’s responses to the media and the Opposition were unclear.
While she said work had been underway to improve and foster a “respectful” culture at the school for around six months since she first became aware of issues, she also said this work had been underway for “over the last couple of years” and would be ongoing.
She rejected suggestions parents were kept in the dark about what had occurred at Calwell High and said she could not comment on specific circumstances.
Furthermore, Ms Berry said incidents of violence were rare and that it was a well-known fact that COVID-19 had exacerbated existing resourcing pressures.
“Calwell High School is a good school … it has got some issues that it is going through at the moment, but the school is being supported to ensure it is a good school and safe for students and teachers,” she said.
But the Australian Education Union and the Opposition disagreed with this assessment of the situation and instead said the situation pointed to a larger resourcing problem.
Australian Education Union ACT branch secretary Patrick Judge described the action taken by the regulator as a “damning indictment on the ACT Education Directorate”.
“The fact that it takes a staff member to be seriously injured and the intervention of an external regulator to provide a degree of safety for the staff and students at Calwell High School demonstrates a lack of care on the part of the directorate.”
Mr Judge said it was likely that further interventions would occur in other schools.
Ms Berry said schools were being encouraged to act proactively if they faced staff shortages and contact the directorate for assistance. She said work was underway to resolve problems at that school in particular.
But Opposition spokesperson for education Jeremy Hanson said this situation was instead symptomatic of a government that continued to under-resource, underfund and understaff its schools.
“This is absolutely shocking. In all my years of politics, this is the worst I’ve seen,” Mr Hanson said.
“All the parents, teachers and children should be rightly disgusted with this government and with the minister’s response which has been absolutely hopeless.”
Mr Hanson called it an “unacceptable” situation and accused the government of simply using COVID-19 as an excuse.