ACT Education Minister Yvette Berry has apologised to families impacted by violence in Canberra schools but pushed back against calls for an independent inquiry into how such incidents are managed.
In an emotional debate in the ACT assembly on Wednesday, the Canberra Liberals shared stories about the toll of violence on children who had been strangled, kicked, punched or otherwise injured in the playground. Watching on from the gallery were a number of their parents.
The push for an inquiry follows revelations in The Canberra Times this month that complaints about violence at Theodore Primary School, which had left at least two children in hospital, stretched back more than a year but incidents appeared to be escalating without intervention.
While the minister had first been contacted by distressed families at Theodore in early 2018, the education directorate only reviewed incidents at the school following an approach by this masthead this month, and did not answer questions on the outcome of the audit.
Canberra Liberal Andrew Wall said the Opposition had since been contacted by families at four schools, including Theodore, who were now at their wit's end battling a system responding at a glacial pace.
"[It's] not just in isolated one-off events but a series of events in those schools that haven't been appropriately dealt with," Mr Wall said.
At a northside school, he said a parent had written to the minister in 2017 describing teachers and students alike crying in the classroom as violence apparently went unchecked.
His voice shaking, Mr Wall drew on an account from another mother whose son had been assaulted at school from the age of six.
"He's now nine ... One-third of his life this has been going on," he said.
Liberal Mark Parton, who has also been meeting with affected families, said some parents had been forced to choose between their children's education and their safety.
Children as young as six were being crushed by fear, he said, afraid to go to the toilet after assaults or taking steak knives to school for protection.
The Opposition slammed the government's lack of data on incidents in schools, and Ms Berry conceded current record-keeping was often paper-based and held only at a school level, making it difficult to access for the directorate.
But she said the government was rolling out a new $10 million IT system expected to improve oversight of incidents in schools when it came into place at the end of the year.
While Ms Berry initially accused the Liberals of using stories of violence to "stir up controversy", she later wept as she addressed parents who had gathered in the chamber to hear the debate.
"Some of [those stories] I had not been aware of," she said.
One parent in the gallery who did not wish to be named said she was disappointed to see the Opposition's motion for an expert audit of violence in schools voted down by the government on Wednesday. She was even more shocked to learn there was still no central reporting portal for school violence in 2019, after a number of reviews and reforms.
"[The minister] told us to get in touch with her but I wrote to her office last year and nothing was done," she said.
Greens leader and former education minister Shane Rattenbury agreed schools had a duty of care to keep schools safe but said another inquiry would take up more time when occupational violence reforms were already being rolled out.
Media reports of violence at Theodore Primary did require an urgent response, he said. Though extra support at the school this year from the directorate had not solved the problem overnight, Mr Rattenbury said the recent decision to recruit a second deputy principal focussed on student wellbeing was a good step forward.
The school is in its second year rolling out a new positive behaviour model, a system-wide initiative already in place in NSW linked to reduced rates of violence in schools.
Ms Berry said stressed there was no quick fix to a problem affecting all jursidictions but said teachers at Theodore had gone through initial training and lesson planning and would roll out new behavioural expectations to students in the coming year, focussing on the playground.
While parents at Theodore have praised its teachers, some said it seemed the directorate was now in damage control without addressing the school's real issues, including around resourcing.
The mother of a student who was still frequently attacked on the playground said her son had now stopped reporting incidents to his teachers after promises of action were repeatedly broken.
"He said to me, 'nothing ever happens, I don't matter', it just breaks my heart every day."
Canberra public schools are required to report any incident resulting in serious harm or injury, putting the safety of students, staff or visitors at significant risk, or posing a threat to property. Non-government schools are only required to report critical incidents, such as a natural disaster, terrorist attack or bomb threat.
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