ACT News


Exclusive schools on notice over harassing

Racial and religious harassment is emerging as a serious problem at some of Canberra's upmarket private schools, according to the ACT's discrimination authority.

The Human Rights Commissioner has warned that she will ''name and shame'' exclusive academies that fail to adequately deal with incidents of children being racially vilified.

The commissioner, Helen Watchirs, said she had reports of anti-Semitic abuse against Jewish children, including the daubing of swastikas, at an unnamed independent school and a faith-based school that sent religious minority children to detention while their classmates attended chapel.

Dr Watchirs said her powers to intervene in the education sector would soon be boosted when the territory's Human Rights Act was amended to guarantee citizens the right to education.

The commissioner told The Canberra Times that a roundtable meeting she hosted this week had, for the second consecutive year, identified race-hate in schools as a significant problem, but her ability to respond to abuses committed in independent schools was limited. ''The biggest concern last year was bullying in schools and we followed that up with Department of Education in terms of the government schools, but we're still yet to respond to private schools,'' she said.

The commissioner said she had seen complaints of racial discrimination, much of it occurring in schools, double in the past two years. ''We got 40 [complaints] last year about racial discrimination, which was double the previous year and we're tracking for the same this year,'' Dr Watchirs said.


''There have been complaints against individual schools and they have all been conciliated successfully, but unless we know what specific schools are having these problems, we can't do much apart from following up individually or with the Catholic Education Office, which obviously covers a number of schools.

''We have a name and shame power, we haven't used it yet, but we would.''

Dr Watchirs said that her powers to publicly expose exclusive schools, who often use their prestigious reputations to command annual fees of tens of thousands of dollars, was a powerful tool when trying to ensure compliance with discrimination and human rights laws.

''In education complaints, I'm not aware of any that didn't conciliate well,'' the commissioner said.

''They value their reputations.

''I'm not saying it's vilification to put a kid in detention but I think its part of the principle that applies, that thresholds should be higher for you if you're not complying with the act and you've got much more influence in the community.''

Dr Watchirs said conciliated complaints had already led to schools changing their policies on racial motivated harassment and bullying and that looming changes to the Human Rights Act would greatly expand her powers in the education sector.

''The Human Rights Act is going to be amended to include the right to education, so that's going to be an angle for us to get stuck into schools,'' she said.

''I think it will expand our role, it would certainly make me feel like I had more power in cases where schools had consistent complaints.''

But across-the-board anti-discrimination guidelines for independent schools was still some way off, Dr Watchirs said.

''There's a project being run by the Childrens' Commissioner around bullying of disabled kids and we're looking at the methodology before we do one on race and religion,'' she said.