ACT News

School principal loses her job over student cage inquiry

The principal of the school where a cage was erected for a 10-year-old autistic student has lost her job after an inquiry found she was the sole instigator of the decision.

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Findings of report into how a student with autism was kept in a cage-like structure

ACT Education Minister Joy Burch and her department director-general Diane Joseph outline the key failings that allowed an autistic boy to be placed in a cage on 14 days in a Canberra school.

Disturbing details emerged about the cage as the inquiry findings were issued on Tuesday – including the fact that it measured two metres by two metres by two metres, and that it had a self-closing latch and door.

The cage cost $5195 – which came out of the school bank account and was not approved by the ACT Education Directorate – and was erected by an independent contractor.

The cage in a Canberra school which led to the independent
The cage in a Canberra school which led to the independent Photo: Supplied

It was revealed on Tuesday that bureaucrats within the ACT Education Directorate also face sanctions over the incident after failing to act on the first advice about the cage on March 17, nor appropriately escalating concerns regarding its construction or use.

It is understood that the alarm was first raised by a member of the school community.

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It took a further nine days for the senior executive to be told about the cage. The cage was removed by the next day on March 27.

The inquiry found "Officers within the directorate did not meet directorate or public expectations by acting with sufficient urgency or alarm when provided with information about the structure".

ACT Education Minister Joy Burch said she still has confidence in her director-general.
ACT Education Minister Joy Burch said she still has confidence in her director-general. Photo: Melissa Adams

"The first officers to be notified of the structure did not act on this advice and referred the complainant to another part of the directorate. There is no record of a further contact from the complainant."

Director-general of ACT Education Diane Joseph refused to say how many public servants were being disciplined, nor if any would lose their jobs, but no bureaucrats had been stood down at this stage.

ACT Education Minister Joy Burch said she still had confidence in her director-general despite the enormous fallout from the cage discovery – which has made headlines around the nation.

"We sold Canberra families short on this one and it will never happen again," Ms Burch said.

The inquiry took 165 days to complete despite Ms Burch receiving initial directorate advice it would take just three weeks.

She said she "remained disappointed and disturbed" over how the cage had ever come to be constructed in a school classroom and had made no secret of her frustration over the length of time to finalise the inquiry – which was done by ACT government Shared Services and at arm's length from the Minister's office.

But the Australian Education Union on Tuesday weighed into the matter of the principal's sanction, questioning the "attempted scapegoating" of the principal for the incident.

While Ms Joseph was adamant the woman was no longer a principal and would not "return to a school", the AEU ACT secretary Glenn Fowler  said this was a misleading representation of the outcome. 

"It is very disappointing that political expediency by the government has overridden accuracy," Mr Fowler said.

Ms Joseph said that "principals will be held accountable for their decisions" and in this case "the principal is clear she is not returning to a school".

She said the decision to construct the cage had been made "without input, consultation or approval from within the school or the directorate".

The inquiry found that there was one occasion where the student was put in the structure by staff to calm down.

An audit of withdrawal spaces in ACT government schools found no evidence of any other structure comparable to the one built at this school.

Fairfax Media has chosen not to reveal the name of the school at the centre of the inquiry in order to protect the identity of the child for who the cage was erected.

He is believed to have been physically abusive towards both his teacher and other students, and the cage was constructed for his explicit use.

To ensure an incident of this type would "never happen again", Ms Joseph said the directorate had also appointed a director for families and students who would have responsibility solely focused on the safety and wellbeing of students – particularly the most vulnerable.

This would create a key contact for parents, students and the community "to raise concerns when they feel a school response in meeting the needs of individual students has been inadequate".

A director of regulation and compliance would also be appointed to make sure that Canberra public schools would "meet their obligations and importantly meet community expectations".

Opposition education spokesman Steve Doszpot questioned why the directorate had taken so long to complete the investigation.

"In reality do we know any more now than we knew 5½ months ago? A lot of the so-called facts that have been announced to us today were known then," he said. "There are a lot of people in a school and a lot of people must have been aware what was going on."