The tricky thing about working from home is that your work life often melds into your home life. And never is this more noticeable than when you receive a work phone call during your summer holidays. I received one such call early in the New Year. Summoning all the professionalism I could muster on the 28 degree day, I attempted to listen carefully to the caller’s story.
It was probably about 40 seconds before I was engrossed in his story and the sleeping journalist inside me was awakened. He told me of an awful historic incident concerning his daughter; she had been sexually assaulted at her primary school in the 1990s.
He said the incident was investigated at the time, but no conclusive evidence was found and it was consequently recorded by the Ministry of Education as a “no incident”.
In the decades that have since passed, he has fought for justice for his daughter. He says he has been in contact with Education Ministers, the Ministry of Education, the Human Rights Commission, the Health & Disability Commission, the Privacy Commission, the Ombudsman, the State Services Commission – all to no avail; he is sent on wild goose chases and the ‘no incident’ label on the file means that he gets nowhere everytime.
All of this is concerning, but what piqued my attention, particularly in light of the Tomorrow’s Schools Review, was that he felt the school’s Board of Trustees and the Principal at the time did not handle the case appropriately, and were encouraged by the Ministry not to take matters further once it had been declared a ‘no incident’.
Interest piqued or not, I knew this would be a difficult lead to follow. My caller disclosed very little of the particulars of the case – no names, no location, no specific details of the offending – which makes it very difficult to report on with any degree of credibility. Without more substantial evidence, it makes for a shaky story, one that asks too much trust from the reader.
I thought I’d leave it. And I went back to boogey boarding and barbecues and playing with my kids.
But a week later I received an email articulating similar concerns. Different circumstances, but similar allegations of improper handling of incidents under the current system which relies on schools to govern themselves via the Board of Trustees model.
The correspondent outlined how her child had been abused by a principal and how she failed to get any support from the school’s board or the Ministry in having the incident properly addressed. She described how the Ministry Advisor would not assist in the case, despite knowing that the board chair was “party to the incident” and had refused to accept her formal written complaint. In fact, she says there had been multiple complaints from parents about the board not addressing the principal’s unprofessional conduct.
An OIA request revealed that the Ministry had recorded the complaint incorrectly and marked it as “investigated”, essentially closing the file.
When the Human Rights Commission offered free mediation on the grounds of discrimination, the board refused to participate. A new Ministry Advisor asked the board for an independent investigation, but is now refusing to supply a copy of the school’s response. She has now complained to the State Services Commission, which “seems to be completely deliberately oblivious to conduct in the education sector”.
My source claims she’s not alone and has found other parents whose children have been “physically and emotionally abused in the school system, sometimes by staff, and school boards have deliberately covered it up”. Among the group there are experiences of secret use of restraint and seclusion of a disabled child, physical and emotional abuse of a disabled child, and multiple cases of sexual assault of a student by another student.
“This is a consistent theme throughout our experiences – gossiping Board members and deliberately poor complaint handling,” she says, “The conflicts of interests and community fallout from the current system are appalling.”
She believes the NZSTA encourages stonewalling and un-cooperation. She claims the Ministry of Education fails to intervene.
There are clear guidelines on what course of action to take when a child has been subject to abuse, but according to my source, “no-one follows them”. She cites well-known cases such as the suicide of Reiha MacLelland, the James Parker sexual abuse in Northland, and death of Aryan Banarjee as examples where boards of trustees either failed to act on parent complaints or attempted cover-ups.
“I know many teachers find the Principal/Board system a poor employer. I am in contact with the teacher who was raped in her classroom by another teacher and the school absolutely failed to support her or initiate a discipline process.”
Yet an OIA request reveals that the Teaching Council (formerly Education Council) has not once fined a board for failing to report the serious misconduct of a staff member.
In a submission to the Tomorrow’s Schools review taskforce, parent advocacy group VIPS – Equity in Education outlined their concerns with the current system.
“The new interventions under the Education Act are pointless if the school refuses to participate, and the Ministry of Education refuses to assist or fails to act. There are currently no accessible or affordable ‘checks and balances’ on school Board of Trustee and teacher conduct.”
Parent advocate Kia King took issue with her children’s school board for different reasons as the aforementioned cases. She felt their response to her complaint about modern learning environments was inadequate. She supports the proposed Tomorrow’s Schools reforms that would strip Boards of some of their power.
“Perhaps having access to an Education Hub at the time would have helped resolve our issues? A perfect mix of paid education professionals and locals that had the time and energy and emotional detachment to go through our dispute properly could have made a huge difference,” she says.
“My own experience with one BOT at one school leads me to believe that releasing some responsibility from a small group of people leading our children’s education is welcome and necessary and that this move could make our education system more equitable. Not only because BoTs don’t always possess the expertise to run schools successfully, but also because of the ‘Yeah Nah’ attitude.
“In a small town like Blenheim, everyone knows each other and loyalty is important to people. Nodding your way through a meeting is sometimes easier than standing up to your best friend’s aunt.”
It seems an appropriate juncture to disclose that I sit on the board of trustees at my children’s school; currently I am chair. It is a large school and on the whole, we operate effectively. However, part of me would be relieved to see some of our obligations handed over to a team of experts. At times I feel astounded by the level of trust and responsibility placed on a group of parents, essentially volunteers. We make weighty financial decisions, deal with difficult employment situations, make complex disciplinary decisions about students we don’t know. We have to put aside friendships and act professionally as a board – something I imagine must be particularly difficult for boards of schools in small, rural communities.
But we also care a great deal about our school, which drives us to make good decisions. What if the ‘team of experts’ doesn’t care as much about our school as we do? What if the Education Hub applies a one-size-fits-all approach to the 125 schools under their remit that leaves our school worse-off than when we were in the driver’s seat – even if it means the school down the road is doing better?
This article has touched lightly – too lightly – on heavy, highly fraught cases where the boards have allegedly been out of their depth. But there will be boards out there that have handled difficult situations admirably, fighting hard for students’ rights, following protocol to the letter, acting in the best interests of students and staff.
Certainly, it isn’t hard to see both sides of the debate over the proposed Tomorrow’s Schools reforms. But to date the opponents and proponents have been school leaders, political bods and educationalists. Their opinions are valid, but so too are the voices of parents, which have been largely absent from discussions so far.
Here, attention is drawn to the experiences of several parents who do not feel like they have been well-served by the current model. They are one-sided accounts, purposefully so. Within each case will exist an intricate web of rebuttal and fineprint that is worthy of greater investigation and analysis. But this article does not pretend to do this; rather it presents these voices, however muffled, as a series of uncomfortable question marks over the status quo, begging us to consider the opinion of every stakeholder when considering such massive changes to our education system.