But it also highlights the challenge facing schools to balance the needs, behaviour and privacy of traumatised, high-needs and vulnerable children with the right to safety and information of other children and their families.
The school’s principal informed parents of the children involved about what had happened. The rest of the school community learned about “an incident” in a letter a few days after it happened, but were not given any more detail. They were told agencies, including police, had been notified and students were given counselling.
‘We must balance the privacy rights of all of the children involved and avoid stigmatising children.’
Education Department spokesman
They learned further details from the parents of children affected, and, the correspondence shows, many were furious about the mismanagement they believed allowed it to occur and a lack of information from the school and department.
In another letter a week later, the principal told parents staff were no longer allowed to let students out of their class without a hall pass or toilet pass, must keep their classroom doors closed, and had been asked to avoid sending children on messages during class time.
An extra teacher was put on playground duty with the responsibility of monitoring the toilets. Students were given a Bravehearts brochure on strategies for “protective behaviours”. But many parents felt this was not enough, the correspondence shows.
Parents also brought up with the Education Department and school leadership wider concerns about the school’s management including inconsistent communication, poor supervision, injuries not being recorded, dirty toilets, bullying and inappropriate behaviour in the playground.
As anger grew, the school’s regional director – a level above the principal – wrote to parents in early August, telling them that the Department of Communities and Justice and the Department of Education were investigating.
He asked them not to use emotive language. “What occurred in June 2019 was serious and warranted a prompt and ongoing response but cannot be described as a crisis,” he said.
He also asked parents not to refer to the incident as a sexual assault. “While I acknowledge the incident was serious and the behaviour was potentially harmful, I ask that everyone remembers such language is stigmatising to the children involved, and may unintentionally traumatise people who have been sexually abused and receive communications of that kind,” he wrote.
Parents remained frustrated with the school’s management and department’s reluctance to provide much information, the correspondence shows. Some threatened to pull their children out of the school if the principal was not replaced.
The principal took leave in August 2019 and “has since commenced duty in another school,” a spokesman for the department said. The new principal is highly regarded by parents who stayed at the school, and anger has subsided. The year 3 children involved in the 2019 incident are also attending another school.
‘What occurred in June 2019 was serious and warranted a prompt and ongoing response but cannot be described as a crisis.’
The school’s regional director
The spokesman said safety and wellbeing of students was the department’s highest priority, and schools took incidents of problematic or harmful sexualised behaviours seriously and managed them promptly.
“Schools are among the safest places in our community,” he said. “Every school day, teachers and students work and learn safely at over 2200 public schools across NSW.’
Complaints from parents at the school were managed by an independent officer, and several agencies were involved, he said. Staff at the school were given extra training, and all children involved were given ongoing counselling.
“There are guidelines which provide advice for communicating with parents and providing ongoing support to all students including strategies to minimise any risk of harm to child safety and wellbeing,” the spokesman said.
The department has guidelines – developed before the incident – for schools to manage incidents of harmful sexual behaviour that involve notifying parents of children involved. However, privacy law limits how much information can be shared about another person’s child.
Parents whose child has engaged in the behaviour are given strategies to support their child and manage ongoing risk.
“The need to notify the broader community about a child’s harmful sexual behaviour will depend on what has occurred,” the spokesman said. “We must balance the privacy rights of all of the children involved and avoid stigmatising children.
“Reasonable steps are taken to protect all children from foreseeable risk of harm.”
Jordan Baker is Education Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald