WorkSafe launches action against ACT government over school assaults
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WorkSafe launches action against ACT government over school assaults

Worksafe ACT has taken action against the territory government after a two-year investigation into violence in public schools found it had failed in its duty of care to staff.

Among the incidents investigated by the watchdog was the case of a pregnant staff member punched repeatedly in the stomach by a young student, a teacher hospitalised by a student's kick and a computer monitor thrown at a teacher's head.

At another school, a support worker who reported multiple injuries from students was left in harms' way for months as strategies put in place failed to protect them.

ACT education minister Yvette Berry, who was joined by ACT union secretary Glenn Fowler to discuss the territory's response to violence in schools.

ACT education minister Yvette Berry, who was joined by ACT union secretary Glenn Fowler to discuss the territory's response to violence in schools.Credit: Jamila Toderas

On Monday, Work Safety commissioner Greg Jones revealed the watchdog had slapped an enforceable undertaking on the ACT education directorate, alleging the government had breached its legislated responsibilities by not doing all that was "reasonably practical" to ensure the safety of its staff.

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Although investigators had focussed their attention on just three public schools deemed to the most at risk between 2016 and 2018, Mr Jones said the problem was systemic in a directorate where existing workplace violence policies were neither flexible nor fully implemented.

The ACT government has already thrown more than $7 million behind reforms to tackle workplace violence since the investigation began, after incidents sparked a series of internal audits and an independent review.

While Mr Jones acknowledged some positive steps had been taken, he said the enforceable undertaking, which is a legally binding agreement for an employer to improve workplace safety, highlighted" the seriousness of these issues".

On Monday, Education Minister Yvette Berry said the government would invest another $2.3 million to implement WorkSafe's recommendations, due for completion within two years.

"This is a difficult and complex issue and we are the only state or territory that is acting on it as far as I am aware," Ms Berry said.

The territory has formally expressed its regret about the incidents, and in July last year launched a new occupational violence policy and management plan, including work to encourage reporting among teachers. Ms Berry described the policy, developed alongside the Australian Education Union, as "nation-leading".

In 2017, incidents reported in mainstream schools climbed to 1500 but the directorate said the total time staff took off work did not increase.

Work Safety commissioner Greg Jones, who acknowledged the ACT government has already been working to improve its response to occupational violence in schools.

Work Safety commissioner Greg Jones, who acknowledged the ACT government has already been working to improve its response to occupational violence in schools.Credit:Jamila Toderas

The number of Canberra public school students involved in physical assaults also surged from 233 in 2012 to more than 2000 in 2017.

Ms Berry acknowledged the problem would not be solved overnight and a significant cultural change was needed.

It was crucial to balance the right of every child to an inclusive education, something strongly supported by recent community consultation, with the need to keep schools safe, she said.

All of the incidents WorkSafe investigated involved students with complex needs due to disability or trauma, many of whom were in primary school or kindergarten. WorkSafe, which will be closely monitoring the directorate's progress on its recommendations, has also issued an improvement notice over one of the three schools.

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As of September, 48 schools had undergone occupational violence training and WorkSafe has ordered the remaining 39 schools should be trained by the end of the school year.

ACT secretary for the Australian Education Union Glenn Fowler praised the directorate for rising to the challenge of occupational violence after the union first lifted the lid on school assaults in 2016, but echoed calls for further training.

"[It's] physical violence, verbal abuse, and it occurs across a range of year groups so it's really difficult to find a pattern in this," he said.

Since the directorate's new policy came in, he said some cases had been handled well but others still failed to achieve the expected benchmark.

"There should be no one in the education directorate who doesn't have a very solid handle on exactly what occupational violence is and [how] to mitigate the risk."

The teams dedicated to dealing with incidents also needed to be beefed up, he said.

"We will seek constant assurance that there are enough people in the right positions to ensure staff get all the support they need and nothing falls through the cracks."

The directorate's latest annual report, released this week, revealed compensation claims for psychological injury had increased in the past financial year, offsetting a fall in claims for musculoskeletal disorders.

At least one of the incidents detailed by WorkSafe led to a successful psychological injury claim through Comcare.

As well as employing extra staff to work with schools on occupational violence, the directorate has introduced new "sensory spaces" where kids can withdraw during class times, in support of behavioural management plans. WorkSafe has recommended an extra $300,000 be spent enhancing the initiative.

Ms Berry did not say if staffing levels in schools were being considered in reforms.

Know more? sherryn.groch@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Sherryn Groch is a reporter for The Canberra Times, with a special interest in education and social affairs

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