Worksafe and the ACT government have both launched investigations into a Canberra private school engulfed by allegations of bullying and intimidation levelled against its board.
Amid a recent exodus of students and staff at Brindabella Christian College, The Canberra Times has uncovered years of complaints and hundreds of thousands of dollars in worker's injury payouts centred on claims of heavy-handed interference by the school's governing board - which it denies.
More people are now speaking out on what they call a "culture of fear" at the college where "disloyal" employees have been allegedly targeted, parents threatened with legal action or debt collectors and even students dragged into disputes.
WorkSafe ACT confirmed it has since begun a formal investigation into Brindabella after reviewing complaints of staff being bullied and harassed.
"[The] investigation is on-going and will involve engagement with all necessary stakeholders," a spokeswoman said.
The Canberra Times has now obtained a copy of an external review into the college which called for an urgent overhaul of its board more than four years ago, but was never released.
Brindabella is one of the fastest-growing private schools in Canberra and has invested more than $19 million in infrastructure over the past three years. In that time it has also drawn attention for high-profile staff departures and a perceived deepening of religion that has seen books like Dracula disappear from lesson plans and letters sent home urging families to vote against marriage equality.
In August, past and present staff, including former principals, broke their silence on the front page of The Canberra Times, alleging "suffocating" interference from Brindabella's self-appointed board of four in the day-to-day running of the school - with board members vetting teachers, changing school timetables and, on one occasion in 2012, forcing the recount of a student captain election.
Parents have now taken their own concerns about the management and financial viability of the school to ministers, departments and regulators. But some at Brindabella have accused them of sabotage.
"This witch hunt is hurting our beautiful school," one staff member said. "The board has helped me a lot, they get blamed for things they haven't even done."
While board members declined to comment last week, board chair Greg Zwajgenberg has previously told The Canberra Times that a vocal minority spreading misinformation was trying to bring down a school on the rise. The board had gotten involved when "things were handled the wrong way", he said, but the school was not in any danger of financial collapse and complied with all necessary regulations. He stressed the board did not profit from the college, and would not be changing.
He did not comment on the review, which was conducted by Christian education experts at the invitation of the board in 2015. But he has denied accounts from multiple people who took part, including former staff member Cathy Prior, that they were told at the time it was intended for public release.
The review, which has been seen by only a handful of people in the intervening years, noted the volunteer time board members had invested in the college and said the "bulk" of their work had been productive and well-intentioned.
But it also recommended board members immediately "stop speaking directly to staff", writing in newsletters or setting foot on its grounds during school hours.
While teachers interviewed at the time did not "reflect the same level of dissatisfaction with the board" as parents, reviewers found people had concerns about the board's perceived "empire building", lack of transparency and "less than Christian mode of operation". They recommended an audit of its governance structure - with a particular focus on life membership and opportunities to institute a parent voice.
It is unclear if this idea was ever considered, and while there are spots for seven more members on the board, Mr Zwajgenberg has stressed it recruits based on skill set when required and does not operate under a parent-controlled model like many other Christian schools.
Multiple parents said their efforts to join the not-for-profit that owns the school had been repeatedly rejected over the years.
Last month, April Witteveen gave the board the choice between accepting her membership in the charity or the withdrawal of her two children from the school - they chose the latter.
"I love this school but things are not going well," she said. "There needs to be accountability."
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In July, longstanding tensions between the board and its school community boiled over into a 169-strong petition for transparency after Brindabella's main parent association disbanded due to threats of legal action.
Just days later, principal Christine Lucas quit - the third to depart the top job in five years citing "operational interference" by the board. The Canberra Times understands three interim principals also left in that time following disputes.
Some parents, staff and students said they still felt "watched" by board members known to frequent the school.
In recent months, some teachers have also echoed concerns about an "over emphasis" on Christian education at Brindabella - first raised by staff in the 2015 review.
The board said it let government officials view the document in 2018 during its five-year registration process, which Brindabella passed.
Last week, the ACT education directorate confirmed it had begun an "Authorised Person review under the Education Act 2004 to ensure the school is complying with the obligations" of that registration. While this review does not have legislative authority to look at bullying in a non-government school, a spokesman said the government was "taking the concerns of parents and friends of the school seriously" as Worksafe investigated.
Sophie Collins is one of many parents to withdraw her children from Brindabella in recent months. But she has now found herself locked in a dispute with the college about school fees for the rest of the term.
"I pulled my daughter out because, at the start of term three, they had no principal, no deputy, no business manager, no head of junior school or pastoral care and almost no teachers for her year," Dr Collins said.
"My other daughter in Year 3 ended up spending a week in kindergarten because they were so short of teachers. I really didn't want to move her, the teachers are angels, but enough is enough.
"I believe the school's now breaching their contract to families. I wouldn't have enrolled my kids if it was in this condition then. We're still losing [about] a teacher a week. We love those teachers."
When she told the college she would not continue to pay fees after moving her children, Dr Collins said she was screamed out of the office by a senior staff member. She has now been threatened in writing with debt collectors.
Records from the Fair Work Commission released under Freedom of Information laws reveal at least seven cases have been brought against the college's controlling not-for-profit by Brindabella staff since 2010, including claims by former principals Liz Hutton and Bruce Handley.
The Canberra Times has confirmed at least four worker's compensation claims alleging workplace bullying have been approved for payouts in recent months while multiple staff have spoken of a grave toll on their health. It is understood about 40 have already quit this year.
Some remaining at the school have raised further concern about classes squashed together and senior students left without proper supervision as Brindabella struggles to find replacements.
"It's causing major issues but everyone is too scared to say anything," one teacher said.
The college has acknowledged that classes are being combined "as a last resort", but blamed a "national shortage" of relief teachers and said it was now considering drawing on the resources of an agency.
As it steps up its recruitment campaign, the board has moved to reassure the community that a good leadership team were in place for the interim and enrolments for next year remain strong.
Mr Zwajgenberg has also rejected rumours that Brindabella's second Charnwood campus, which the school leases from a Pentecostal church, is at risk of closure.
"We're actually looking to grow our early learning centres and finalise plans to expand to a third campus," he told The Canberra Times in August.