16 December 2019

WorkSafe issues bullying, harassment notices to Brindabella Christian College

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Brindabella Christian College

Brindabella Christian College must act on six improvement notices issued by WorkSafe ACT by March. Photo: File.

Following a year or more of internal turmoil, Brindabella Christian College at Lyneham has been issued with six improvement notices by WorkSafe ACT regarding bullying, complaint procedures and staff consultation.

The notices were issued on Thursday and follow the formal investigation into the school launched by Worksafe ACT regarding claims of bullying and harassment against staff.

The notices have been issued under the ACT’s Work Health and Safety Act 2011. They indicate that WorkSafe ACT has found the school is not fully compliant with workplace health and safety laws.

The notices specifically cover the development and documentation of processes and procedures, including:

  • Risk assessments for hazard identification, incorporating psychological hazards such as bullying and harassment
  • Methodology for investigating complaints
  • Ensuring appropriate training and instruction is available for workers
  • Consulting workers on the development of policies and procedures, and
  • Having systems in place to ensure officers exercise appropriate due diligence.

The notices and action taken do not relate to student safety, but to the development and documentation of work health and safety systems as required under the Work Health and Safety legislation.

While WorkSafe ACT cannot investigate specific instances of bullying and harassment, the watchdog can address systemic issues within the school and did so on the basis of a significant number of psychological injury claims made by Brindabella employees in recent years.

The investigation centred on management systems within the school and investigators focused on the school’s much-criticised board, headed by long-serving chair Greg Zwajgenberg, and also on senior staff and their management roles.

The board is a closed entity of four which has not changed for some years. It is chaired by Mr Zwajgenberg and includes physiotherapist Dr Wendy Chesworth, barrister Alyn Doig and real estate agent David Whittem.

In July, Brindabella Christian College parents described an “excruciating” standoff between the Board and the rest of the school community after the departure of the fifth school principal since 2015.

In August, parents appealed to ACT Education Minister Yvette Berry, Member for Fenner Andrew Leigh, and Christian Schools Australia. WorkSafe ACT confirmed at the time that it was investigating what parents and former staff members alleged was a “toxic culture” where intimidation and intrusive management were commonplace.

Christian Schools Australia also confirmed to Region Media at the time that their CEO had sought out Brindabella’s Board members and spent “a considerable amount of time” with them canvassing the issues.

CSA is a voluntary fellowship of autonomous Christian schools, governed by a National Council, working with State Councils, each elected by the member schools. The organisation can expel schools that do not meet ethical standards of governance, among other criteria. CSA also provides governance models and guidance for member schools.

Reports indicate that approximately 100 students and more than three dozen staff have left Brindabella in the past year, while some parents say they have been threatened with debt collectors and legal action.

A personal letter to some parents mid-year said that “the Board of BCEL [Brindabella Christian Education Ltd] operates in accordance with its Constitution at all times and complies with all Commonwealth and State Guidelines for the operation of non-Government Schools and ACNC requirements. BCEL reports publicly through Audited Financial Reports and our Annual Report on the operations of the College”.

WorkSafe ACT has given Brindabella Christian College until early March to demonstrate completion of all Notices and will continue to work with the College during this process.

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