The ACT Government is continuing to resist calls for an inquiry into school violence despite an new report finding the ACT has the highest prevalence of school principals experiencing physical violence and threats of violence in the nation.
The 2018 Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey produced by the Australian Catholic University shows that last year, 65 per cent of school leaders in the ACT were threatened with violence and one in two (51 per cent) actually experienced physical violence.
The next worse when it comes to threats of violence are the Northern Territory (54 per cent), Tasmania (49 per cent) and Queensland (49 per cent), where after a drop in 2017, levels jumped again in 2018.
For actual violence, the Northern Territory (50 per cent) and Tasmania (46 per cent) again follow.
The survey, which covers both government and non-government sectors, revealed concerning upward trends for the ACT, as well as NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.
But Education Minister Yvette Berry said the increases were no surprise given that schools had been encouraged to better report incidents, and she expected that to continue.
She rejected calls for an inquiry into school violence, saying programs were in place to deal with the issue, including the rollout of the Positive Behaviours for Learning program, and an inquiry would just become a spectacle.
“We’re already doing all of the work that an inquiry would suggest that we do,” she said.
In 2017, the Education Directorate launched a new occupational violence policy and management plan only to have WorkSafe ACT launch action against the Government last year after a two-year investigation into violence in public schools found it had failed in its duty of care to staff.
Ms Berry responded by announcing the Government would invest another $2.3 million to implement WorkSafe’s recommendations.
This month, school violence again raised its head when parents at Theodore Primary complained about continuing incidents in which children were attacked by other students. It emerged that parent’s concerns were a year old but had not been dealt with, even after Ms Berry asked officials to look into them in November 2018.
Ms Berry launched an investigation but rejected Opposition calls for a general inquiry into school violence.
She said the incidents had been reviewed and extra supports were now in place at Theodore.
The principals’ report said the levels of offensive behaviour were growing in many parts of the country but the trend was not uniform. The data in the ACT, NSW and Tasmania was extremely worrying in 2016 while the levels of threats and violence increased significantly in Victoria and Queensland in 2017.
Nationally, the highest prevalence of violence is in Government primary schools at 42 per cent or 10.5 times the population rate, with women most at risk – 40 per cent experiencing violence compared to 32 per cent for men.
A majority of Government school principals in the ACT are women, and there are 538 female school leaders compared with 214 male school leaders, according to the Education Directorate’s 2017-18 annual report.
The report says there is an urgent need for independent authorities to investigate adult-adult bullying, threats of violence and actual violence, and to have powers to interview teachers, parents and students.
They should determine who are most at risk, why and what can be done to protect them and whether the risk also extends to teachers and students. How a school is run and outside influences should also be examined.
“The consequences of offensive behaviour in schools are likely to become costly for employers, through time lost to ill health, OH&S claims against employers’ responsibility for not providing a safe working environment and reduced functioning while at work as a result of the high levels of offensive behaviour in the workplace,” the report says.
“Therefore, the investment in such a taskforce may prove to be the least expensive option in relation to this issue.”
The report says the cost to mental health is high, with a recent PriceWaterhouseCoopers study finding that the impact of not addressing it amounted to $10.6 billion a year, but every dollar spent on addressing the issue returned $2.30.