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Student suspended from St Edmund's College for having a 'dangerous' opinion

A 17-year-old who tried to organise a student strike on Friday over changes to St Edmund's College including to its crest, the uniform and, potentially, song has been suspended indefinitely after the headmaster allegedly said his presence at the school would be "too dangerous".

The suspension appears to point to a general malaise at the iconic Canberra school, with multiple sources telling The Canberra Times there are major concerns about falling student numbers, long-term staff leaving, changes affecting the identity and pride of the school, the academic achievements of the students and a lack of consultation around important decisions.

Complaints have been lodged with Edmund Rice Education Australia, the overarching body of the college.

Those close to the school say the suspension on Tuesday of Year 12 student John-Paul Romano was simply indicative of the autocratic leadership style of headmaster Daniel Lawler who, they say, does not permit alternative views to his.

"We're bleeding students, staff members and board members all because the current administration won't listen," one said.

However, Mr Lawler has defended his leadership style and maintained that morale at the school is good and that the wider school community is consulted.

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"I think I have a positive relationship with members of my community and share leadership collaboratively across the school, but don't believe it is appropriate to comment further about my leadership style," he said.

Mr Lawler also dismissed rumours that the school song would be changed or The Pines at Tuross, owned by the college for school camps, would be sold, saying both were untrue.

In a letter this week to John-Paul Romano's father, Mr Lawler said the year 12 student was being suspended for "bringing the college into disrepute".

The letter did not outline what the teenager was alleged to have done. The Education Act does not include inciting "disrepute" as a reason to suspend a student at a non-government school.

The suspension came just days after John-Paul created a Facebook page called St Edmund's College Canberra Alumni Association and urged students to strike this Friday over changes to the school uniform, crest and, potentially, song. There have been concerns those cosmetic changes strike at the heart of the history of the school which opened in 1954 and are symptomatic of the lack of consultation.

"We were trying to start a conversation," the 17-year-old said.

"I believe a lot of people, staff and students, don't want to have that conversation because of the threat of the management.

"The protest wasn't to be just a physical one. You could have walked out of class if you wanted. But it was just about making your voice and your opinion known."

A college leader, house leader and SRC rep, John-Paul said he was shocked to be suspended.

"I was very surprised, for such a minor thing," he said.

"There are students who have physically assaulted other people and don't get suspended."

John-Paul said in explaining the suspension, Mr Lawler had said his presence at the school would be too dangerous.

"I'm not sure why it's dangerous. I haven't assaulted or threatened anyone," he said.

John-Paul said he believed the school wanted him kept clear of a meeting this week of principals from the Edmund Rice Education Australia network. He was due to serve canapes to the principals at a function on Wednesday night as part of an assessment for his hospitality studies.

"I believe part of the suspension was that the principals are at the school this week," he said.

When asked to respond to those claims, Mr Lawler said student matters were "always treated confidentially". He denied that students who had committed assaults were not suspended.

Mr Lawler was also asked if John-Paul was being shut down for expressing an opinion contrary to the school management.

"At St Edmund's all students are encouraged to express their opinions and these opinions are valued by members of the staff and by me," Mr Lawler said.

"The college has avenues that students can follow to make comment, and comment needs to be in respectful, appropriate and in keeping with the ethos of the college and the law."

Fellow Year 12 students of John-Paul, including Jeremy Colbertaldo, said they had also been involved in planning the protest action, but had not been suspended.

"Our main prerogative was to create a platform where people felt comfortable they could speak out on what they believe in," Jeremy, 17 said.

John-Paul said he had a meeting with Mr Lawler on Friday to discuss the suspension.

It was revealed earlier this year that the college was changing its crest. The school uniform was also changed.

Some school insiders who spoke to The Canberra Times said those changes were tinkering at the edges and the real focus should be on attracting students and improving the school's academic record. Others believed the changes confirmed poor consultation and were central to the erosion of school pride.

John-Paul said he believed there were rumblings about changing the school song as it was "no longer relevant".

"For me and Jeremy, both of our fathers attended the school. There's a big sense of Eddies pride," John-Paul said.

"To change the logo and to change the uniform are big things. This tie I'm wearing today is the same tie my father wore when he went to college and that meant a lot to me on my first day, when I was wearing the same uniform as my father."

Several people raised concerns about falling enrolments and the departure of long-term staff. Mr Lawler would not going into specifics of how student numbers were going.

"Like all fee-charging schools, we face challenges with enrolment numbers. There are a number of factors which influence parental choice including shifting demographics, financial impost, and increased competition from other schools," he said.

As to the academic record, Mr Lawler said: "We are a comprehensive non-selective school, which prides itself on an inclusive enrolment of students of all abilities. Some of our students do exceptionally well, and we are working with all students to maximise their learning opportunities and potential".

Mr Lawler also denied 30 staff had left last year.

"Staff changes in a large school can fluctuate for various reasons each year. For example, last year some teachers retired, some went to promotional positions, some moved for family reasons and some were on short-term contracts that ended," he said.

Mr Lawler maintained parents were consulted extensively about the uniform changes.

"The college always consults about key decisions on a regular basis. Sometimes this is internal and sometimes includes the broader community. We will shortly be releasing our new strategic plan which is based on broad consultation across the school community, including staff, students, parents and others such as the college board," he said.

Others in the school community disagreed, saying alternative views to management's were not welcome.

"Anyone who has the courage to say, 'I disagree' gets shut down or told to leave. And that's board members, teachers and families," one insider said.

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