Parents say they are afraid to send their children to a Canberra school amid escalating violence between students, but their concerns have been ignored by the government for more than a year.
In November, more than 30 parents signed a letter addressed to ACT Education Minister Yvette Berry calling for a government intervention at Theodore Primary. It detailed harrowing incidents at the school including a child who had been allegedly choked into unconsciousness on the playground and another student who had been cornered in a toilet and swung around by a broken arm.
The incidents were alarmingly frequent and widespread, multiple families told The Canberra Times, but the school and the education directorate appeared to turn a blind eye to their severity despite complaints stretching back to 2017. Responses were often not followed through as promised or not disclosed and some parents had not been told about incidents at all, including those involving head injuries, families said.
At least one child had been hospitalised with a concussion, another had mild scarring after being hit across the face with a heavy instrument and others had sought psychological support outside of school for anxiety, depression and copycat behavioural problems.
Leann Manunui was one of at least six parents to pull her kids out of Theodore in recent months due to safety concerns.
"This is not a bit of push and shove on the playground, this is 18 months of really shocking things happening and nothing being done,” Ms Manunui said.
“There’s kids being hit over the head with stools, rocks and tree branches, hit in the face with rakes; little girls followed into the toilets by older boys and told to 'Suck their d---', kids coming home with bruises and they're just told to stay away from [certain] kids or be more resilient.”
Other families said they were "trapped" at Theodore, knocked back from nearby schools due to zoning and enrolment pressures. They now dropped their children off each morning with dread.
All parents spoken to said there were some great teachers at the school who were deeply concerned for their children, but they did not appear to have the support they needed.
Emma Warwick's son was hospitalised last year after he was thrown against a brick wall and punched in the head by another student, and she has since moved her children across the border to a school in NSW.
"I'm sure a lot of parents are really happy there...There's always been some incidents at Theodore [like] any school, but it's the way it's handled now," she said.
"I don’t expect one on one supervision in the playground and I completely understand you [shouldn't always just] suspend a child at home but ... those kids need more support, I feel for them, the teachers need more support."
Ms Manunui said the school was a great community, which proudly catered to students with complex needs, but it did not appear to have enough staff to watch over students during recess and lunch. Despite some improvements to playground supervision last year, she said children were still being hurt.
“If anything it's getting worse, parents have ended up coming down to help keep an eye out,” she said.
While it is understood the school had developed a plan for the school toilets, after a number of students were followed into cubicles and assaulted, incidents had continued and some children were now afraid to use the bathroom.
The ACT education directorate said the school was well resourced to meet the needs of all its students and had been putting plans in place to respond to incidents.
This month, the directorate began ramping up its own specialist support for the school. Though its behavioural experts have already been helping Theodore Primary, like all schools, with some individual students, The Canberra Times understands a direct intervention has not taken place.
"An occupational therapist has undertaken an assessment of the playground activity to boost the school’s focus on strengthening positive student behaviour,” a spokeswoman said.
She did not answer questions on what procedures the school had put in place, why the directorate was only now ramping up its support, or if all incidents at the school had been reported appropriately.
"Schools always need to balance giving families confidence action is being taken on incidents and protecting the confidentiality of other students," the spokeswoman said.
In May 2018, responding to a complaint Mrs Warwick made following her son's hospitalisation, the directorate said it had reviewed Theodore Primary's behavioural management practices and was satisfied the school was following student safety procedures.
"[The current safety policy] is intended as a benchmark for schools ... rather than a covenant," it said.
"Principals ... have the authority to respond to student incidents on a case-by-case basis."
Last Friday, the directorate clarified the policy was a requirement, not just a benchmark, and all schools had a duty of care. A spokeswoman did not provide detail about how such standards were enforced.
Theodore school board chair Alison Yialeloglou also backed the school's leadership, saying a new year and a new configuration of staff would help improve things.
"In 2018 several changes to the school playground layout, end of year staff movements and strong enrolments have seen some students and their families struggle with the transition of this change," she said.
"Strategies to address these difficulties have been explored and developed by the principal and the school board that will be rolled out over the coming months."
But parents said there had already been a number of fights and injuries at the school in its first week back, including a knock to the head.
"My son has been vomiting before school, he's so stressed, they make us promises but it keeps happening," one parent, who did not want to be identified, said.
"I'm terrified ... And [some of] the kids are falling so far behind in their learning."
Last year, some families had pulled their kids out of school for up to weeks at a time due to violence.
The Education Minister declined to comment but a spokeswoman said she was aware of the situation and the directorate was investigating.
Following the letter from parents in early November, Ms Berry's office rang Ms Manunui for more information and it is understood the directorate sat down with the school the same month to discuss the incidents.
A few weeks later, Theodore Primary sent home an email acknowledging there had been "incidents over time where some students have behaved inappropriately towards fellow students".
Senior students had been reminded that “hitting, kicking, punching and swearing at other students is not acceptable”, the email read.
“We have additional staff on duty at recess and lunch to monitor students at play. We will continue to manage any further incidents through our usual processes of restorative conversations, mediation, time out and follow up conversations with students and families.”
The same month, it is understood the school briefly banned recess and lunch for senior students due to fighting. Parents were also notified when a child brought a knife to school in October.
Some families whose children had been punched repeatedly in the head, kicked in the stomach or otherwise hurt in the past 12 months at school said that, when they had asked for incident reports, the school was often unable to produce them.
Mrs Warwick said her son's head injury had not been reported by the school for four days despite an ambulance being called.
"I had to kick up a stink just to get them to do it," she said.
In that instance, the directorate told Mrs Warwick the school had correctly followed reporting procedure.
Michelle Moir, who moved from Googong in December so she could send her children to school over the border, said when she requested reports on nine separate occasions that her son had been hurt at school, she was only handed three.
"My hair was falling out from [the stress], the place is like a detention centre," Ms Moir said.
"My son would come home just black and blue after being bashed up, he'd be punched in the back, in the stomach, in the private parts, my daughter was punched in the face repeatedly and kicked."
Ms Moir sought psychological support for her son, who would wake up screaming at night and often fell ill with anxiety.
“The social worker at the hospital couldn’t believe it when I told her what was happening. Now in his new school, he’s back to being a normal kid, he’s made friends easily, he’s happy.
"But I'm praying for those kids every day ... the school needs help."
Following questions from The Canberra Times, the directorate began calling parents at the school on Friday asking how students were going in their first week back.
While Theodore Primary underwent an improvement review by the directorate last year, it is understood reviewers focussed on teaching and learning and did not look at violence or specific incidents.
The school is in its second year rolling out a new system-wide positive behaviour model, which is based on international approaches linked to reduced rates of violence in schools.
The directorate said the program was already showing remarkable results in some ACT schools and would help standardise incident responses, but was expected to take five years to fully embed in a school.
Theodore Primary is not the only school experiencing difficulties with violence. In its latest annual report, the directorate reported 1660 student incidents in public schools, though that number does not capture all incidents reported to the directorate.
Non-government schools in the ACT are only required to report critical incidents, such as a natural disaster, terrorist attack or bomb threat, to the government. Catholic schools report incidents above a certain threshold to the Catholic Education Office.
The ACT government is also rolling out sweeping reforms to reduce occupational violence in schools and increase reporting, amid action from WorkSafe ACT and pressure from the union for action on teacher assaults.
Know more? Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org