6 April 2022

Calwell High School parent 'absolutely livid' to learn depth of school's violence, staffing issues

| Lottie Twyford
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Calwell high school

Year 7 and 8 students at Calwell High School were barred from attending school after WorkSafe ACT found an “untenable”, violent and unsafe situation when they attended campus last week. Photo: Calwell High School.

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.”

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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.

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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.

Yvette Berry

Minister for Education Yvette Berry defended Calwell High and said work was underway to improve the culture at the school. Photo: Lottie Twyford.

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.

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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.

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Most of the comments on here are the usual unhelpful Canberra snobbishness – glad it’s not me, and what do you expect from Tuggeranong. The union figures on incidents in schools released this week should give everyone pause for thought. – 1600 incidents, 70% of which are violent – not all at Calwell High – in the space of one term. I spoke to a Principal from an inner south school this week and he confirmed, that life is not that rosy elsewhere.

My son goes to this school, so I’ve been interested to read many of the comments. It’s a shame most wouldn’t have a clue what they are talking about. It’s a Canberra thing to be snobbish about schools, the ‘I’m alright’ model, where making consideration of others is out of the realm of possibility. The RiotAct forum reflects this precisely in it’s puff pieces of high end realestate no one here can afford and whiny opinion pieces seeking endorsement.

I’ve put my money where my mouth is and participated in P&C committees. I’d guess the majority commenting here wouldn’t even do that – in my experience, only a handful of the same old parents turn up. From what I can see, the Directorate is a also hands off entity. Public schools are doing the best they can, with not a whole lot of help. On that basis the Minister does have serious questions to answer. They’ve been caught with their pants down and the ones suffering are the schools, parents and students. For my money, that’s where I’d like to see change.

Send your kids to whatever school you want, but don’t forget there are schools in your suburb which need your support whether you go there or not.

I’d have thought the solution to this sort of problem is to remove the troublemakers from the school and allow the remaining students to get on with learning. The troublemakers need to be returned to their families and told they are doing online learning until they learn to behave. This needs to be supported adequately by the education department.

It sounds like the teachers here are victims too. I agree though. Even though public education is for everyone, a situation like this doesn’t sound safe at all. Even though most students do the right thing, those that don’t make others feel unsafe. ‘Return to Sender’ seems like a valid response, until they can present themselves in a suitable behavioural condition to attend school ???

I fear that this is the inevitable result of an education system that lacks a sound basis of principles, ethos and philosophy. Yvette Berry may be well intentioned but that is an insufficient qualification for such an important role. I spent years working at the Assembly listening to Ms Berry and never once did I hear her make a speech that was not larded in cliche, fashionable ‘education’ mantras and platitude. She clearly has no idea what a good education system is or should aim for. It’s not about making kids comfortable, gender aware, computer savvy, diversity conscious, a sustainability warrior or whatever the flavour of the month in ACT schools is. It’s about inculcating academic knowledge and some civic and personal responsibility and preparing kids to be knowledgable, educated, well-rounded citizens capable of entering the workforce educationally equipped to to be functioning and contributing members of society.

The Education Minister was rightly ridiculed when it emerged a Tuggeranong public school had been locking a kid in a cage a few years ago.

Now we learn that the Tuggeranong teachers might want to lock themselves in a cage for their own protection.

I jest, I jest.

What a sad state we have come to for public education in Canberra.

Surely a few Greens members were questioning their parties decision NOT to support a no-confidence motion for the Education Minister. Especially Tuggeranong member Jonathan Davis who campaigned heavily about Education in Tuggeranong but has done absolutely nothing to improve things or fight for much needed additional resources for the schools in his electorate.

Many of the students causing the problems are square pegs being jammed into round holes and as a result rebelling. The NSW Education system used to offer an alternate stream for those students that aren’t academically inclined. So you had a traditional academic stream for the kids capable of, and more interested in the professions and a more practical stream that prepared the less academic for blue collar occupations. These schools were closely linked to TAFE and gave students a defined path going forward. The amalgamation of the two into comprehensive High Schools has been a step backwards for all concerned. A token appeasement for the dysfunction that ensued was the establishment of Schools for The Performing Arts which were seen as a way of keeping the not so academic entertained and motivated while the more academic got on with the more traditional subjects and could also get involved on the Arts side. Good for self esteem and a sense of purpose in attending school for the not so academic. Good PR for the Education Departments as well. Trouble is that they don’t convert to a sound base for future employment for the disillusioned many that concentrate on that stream. Sometimes the old ways were the best ways and experimenting with kids ‘ lives is not a good idea.

Return from a month’s holiday to hear my cousin once again complaining about the long ongoing sad state of her daughter’s school. This time I see the issues she has been talking about splashed across the front page.

How can the Education Minister say that Calwell high is a great school and maintain a straight face? Please stop pretending and give people the truth. If you can’t admit a problem it’s very hard to fix it.

NAPLAN Results for Calwell High are a sea of red in comparison to like schools, the underperformance has been ongoing for years and the lack of resourcing, funding and reduced student and teacher support continues year in year out.

Canberra needs to stop having Education Ministers who only pay attention to schools in their own electorate or in the chief minister’s electorate.

Mike of Canberra12:56 pm 06 Apr 22

So one of the least competent Ministers in what is possibly Australia’s worst state or territory government has managed to turn Canberra’s public schools into something out of “Blackboard Jungle”. As I’ve asked elsewhere, is anyone really surprised?

My daughter was lucky. My wife (a Catholic school alumni) insisted our daughter attend a Independent school (2006-2015) then later at high school and college, a large Catholic College school (2015-2017). Yes, I paid fees and people stirred me about being ‘elitist’ and that I should be supporting public schools. This was despite my attending public primary and high schools in Canberra (albeit in the 60s and 70s) and me saying they were fine. My wife was right (I can’t believe I admit that). There is no way I would have been comfortable sending my daughter to the high schools/college that were zoned for our suburb. What has happened to the public school system in certain parts of Canberra?

Given the Minister’s pathetic response, can I suggest that this is what we should expect from a tired Government that has been in power for 20 years? Absolute power not only corrupts, but means that the Minister – and the public servants under her – don’t feel as though there will be any consequences if they don’t act.

Keep this in mind next time you vote at an ACT election.

HiddenDragon7:33 pm 05 Apr 22

Sounds like this government needs to apply the same sort of law and order resources that were used for enforcing Covid restrictions and regulations (and in containing those inter-state protestors) to achieving decent behaviour in the schools it runs.

swaggieswaggie6:39 pm 05 Apr 22

It’s been a cesspit of a school for the last few years, It’s great for dancing and playing music but for anything remotely academic…forget it! Time for the Education Department to admit that the current “touchy feely” system of education is an unmitigated disaster.

And I think you’ll find the school has excelled in this area. It’s often the case that you give kids a creative outlet and they improve markedly. I know for a fact that the school has a positive program through skills training towards trades.

Surely you go to the movies or plays or concerts? Be a pretty dull world without the arts. Last time I looked, it wasn’t my accountant on the stage entertaining me.

Our society tells these precious 13 and 14-year-olds that they have rights. The ACT Government allows them to wag school, to protest things like Climate Change. If the ACT Greens had their way, these delinquents would be able to vote, in a couple of years.

Any private school would have expelled these kids, but kick a kid out of a public school? You can’t do that.

And we hear the Minister say they are working to improve the culture! Not good enough Minister. Get these delinquents out of the school and into the hands of the police.

Send in the cops so the perps can get a slap on the wrist.

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