Students are pleading for the ACT Government to overturn its decision to end the chaplaincy program in local public schools, launching a campaign to have the role reinstated.
Earlier this year, Education Minister Yvette Berry announced her decision to end the National School Chaplaincy Program in public schools in 2020, saying chaplains would be replaced by qualified youth and social workers to service the whole school.
Ms Berry said ACT public schools were required under the Education Act to operate in a secular, non-sectarian way and religious chaplains were incompatible with this objective.
School Chaplaincy ACT is calling on the ACT Government to immediately reverse what they believe is a “baffling” decision, particularly in the light of last month’s parliamentary inquiry called for more resources and support workers to combat bullying in schools.
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School Chaplaincy ACT chief Peter James has launched a Save our School Chaplains campaign alongside former students and parents, saying the ACT Government made the decision without any school or community consultation.
Former Hawker College student Jessica Gantenbein credits her chaplain with helping her to survive school after she started to suffer daily panic attacks.
“I was having around three panic attacks a day. It was really debilitating and my grades started to drop,” Ms Gantenbein shared. “It was hard to get out of bed.
“My chaplain was the most available and accessible to talk to. The chaplain was the only person I felt comfortable talking to because others were on staff and therefore there was a lot more legalism.
“I am not sure if I would have finished school without a chaplain. I don’t think I would have ever turned to a teacher or a counselor because I didn’t feel as comfortable. They feel more like an authority figure while a chaplain felt like a friend.”
Mr James said that in a typical week every chaplain has around 40 supportive conversations with students, teachers and parents, with the top five issues being friendship and peer issues, school behaviour, bullying, family breakdown and mental health.
He said he was inundated with frustrated, disappointed and angry parents and students when they found out the government was cutting the program.
He believes the decision to end chaplaincy wasn’t based on the best interests of students or schools.
“The ACT Government right now has experienced chaplains with youth work qualifications across many schools who are trained to deal with bullying and who help many students,” he said. “The explanation by the ACT Government that ‘secularism means that chaplaincy is incompatible with the operation of ACT government schools’, is wrong.
“Chaplains are qualified to deal with people of all or no faith in a non-coercive manner and work alongside psychologists and other pastoral care workers across school communities.”