Whilst at first glance this figure appears horrifying, as with all raw numbers, there is a need to look closely at what is being noted. For the NSW Department of Education (and potentially all education systems in Australia) there are some important facts to consider.
Firstly, these are allegations statistics, not ‘proven’ findings. This though should bring no comfort; several factors play into allegations of this kind.
Most families that have children with a disability are under immense pressure and need support, therefore to bring themselves to pen an allegation is often a final resort, reluctantly taken.
Families need schools; families of children with a disability even more so. By making an allegation, families are aware they may be potentially endangering a crucial relationship.
Secondly, when we look at the international statistics on children with a disability being three times more likely to be abused, and non-verbal disabled children ten times more likely, these statistics finally bring the NSW Department of Education figures closer to expected (though still unacceptable levels) of reporting.
In fact, this begs the question: why have reporting figures been so low in the past?
Abuse and assaults usually take place with minimal witnesses, and are therefore hard to prove. Children with a disability, like other vulnerable alleged victims, are often doubted as reliable witnesses.
This is despite research from the Australian Law Reform Commission which demonstrates that such witnesses are more likely to be truthful than adult defenders.
And yet, such allegations being proven must get through the ‘justice’ system where NSWDoE staff investigate their own NSWDoE staff.
The fact that education systems generally investigate themselves - along with evidence from the 2017 NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into disability and education - suggests that too often there are questions over how EPAC (the NSWDoE investigative body – Employee Performance And Conduct) lists complaints as reportable conduct or not.
EPAC itself is an issue on many fronts, given there appears to be a growing incertitude to its transparency, from not only parents but also staff.
There needs to be a robust investigative system for all allegations to ensure the credence in respect of education and all teachers, and for those minority teachers who abuse their important role of assurance.
It is in the interest of all that the ‘bad’ apples are removed, so that the respect we should all have for the education system and the majority of exceptional staff is maintained.
Silence from staff in so longer acceptable, and until the NSWDoE deals with these issues with speed, transparency and through an independent body, it matters not what policies are in place.
Policies must be held to and be accountable if they are to hold any weight.
Similarly of concern was the fact that the NSWDoE was unable to provide statistics as to the allegations of bullying of staff in schools when questioned at the 2018 Budget Estimates.
As a duty of care to all staff, this would have been thought to be a requirement, particularly with recent concerns over mental health and teacher ‘burn-out’.
The common factor in this area is that such statistics and investigations would also be under the remit of EPAC.
Australia has a problem of organisations investigating themselves and not supporting the very individuals they are there to look after, whether it be Church organisations or the banks, all of which have been revealed in and finally challenged through Royal Commissions.
Education and children with a disability may well be part of a next Royal Commission if we have the expected change of Federal Government.
Perhaps it is time the NSW Minister and the Department of Education moved proactively to initiate a truly independent, separate investigate system for complaints, to not only protect children and staff, but future litigation. It’s time we put people before systems.
The final real concern is how any such complaints are listed. Court costs, discontinuation costs and settlements were surprisingly low in the statistics provided by the Minister’s office in relation to matters regarding children with a disability.
On further enquiries, it was revealed that some complaints involving children with a disability, staff specialising in disability and the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 are classed as NOT involving children with a disability by the Minister’s office and the Department of Education.
To this author’s mind, and to paraphrase Hamlet, ‘Something is rotten in the State of NSW’.