ACT Education Minister Yvette Berry will call on a parliamentary committee to investigate the handling of violence in Canberra schools, after more than 600 people signed a petition demanding an expert inquiry.
Following revelations in The Canberra Times about schoolyard attacks, Ms Berry had repeatedly resisted calls from the opposition and parents for an independent review into school violence. Instead, she set up her own ministerial advisory panel, headed by experts, with a remit to examine existing policies rather than investigate specific schools and then report back to her office.
On Wednesday, Ms Berry said that, while she remained concerned a public inquiry could harm school communities, she also accepted her accountability to the ACT community through a transparent assembly process.
"As minister, I need the advice from the advisory group [which will still operate concurrently] so that I can fix any shortfall and make any necessary changes to the system," she said.
"It’s also clear that the community want an appropriate forum to bring forward individual matters outside of the government."
The Canberra Times has learnt of long-standing complaints about the handling of violence in at least eight schools in the ACT, with staff and students at times seemingly left in harms' way as procedures either failed or were not followed through. Children as young as five had been repeatedly strangled and beaten in the schoolyard, while others had sought ongoing psychological support for anxiety.
This week, Ms Berry will call on the assembly's joint standing committee on education to investigate the "management and minimisation" of violence and bullying in both government and non-government schools.
But the minister will also seek an agreement that any evidence gathered by the committee which could identify schools or individuals must be held on a confidential basis or recorded privately.
"It is not fair or constructive for an inquiry process to be used to litigate individual matters," she said, noting people could be identified without their consent during evidence whether they were named or not.
"This narrow requirement...will not prevent the committee from taking other evidence in public as normal," Ms Berry said.
The minister cannot compel the committee to agree to the condition, which will be debated in the assembly on Thursday. The Australian Education Union has also warned against naming schools.
Canberra Liberal Elizabeth Lee, who sits on the committee, said she would consider the proposal, but noted assembly committees already had provisions to protect vulnerable witnesses.
"We need to find a balance because this issue has garnered a whole heaps of interest and concern within the wider community and generally our democratic system means we want to do everything out in the open," she said.
While the committee inquiry was not the expert-led review she had been calling for, Ms Lee said she was pleased that the minister had shifted gear on the issue.
Ms Berry said she had left the committee's remit deliberately broad, as much will be left to members. But she suggested they consider the societal context of violence and bullying as well as the government's existing work on both occupational violence and supporting students with challenging behaviours.
The final report from the minister's advisory panel, due back in August, will also be put to the committee.
In a formal response to the petition, Ms Berry said the government was committed to early support and prevention to reduce the impact of violence - a problem affecting communities across Australia.
She acknowledged that legacy administration systems had “significantly limited transparency about management of bullying and violence in schools”, but were now being upgraded to begin capturing data on student violence.
More than 50 of the ACT's 88 public schools had also begun implementing a positive behaviour model used across the border in NSW.
The program takes up to five years to embed in schools, but has been recommended by more than one expert report to the government for its links to reduced rates of violence.
The petition had already been referred to the committee for consideration. Multiple families have since stressed that their push for more accountability in schools was about keeping children safe, not demonising teachers, who they praised.
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