I rise today to speak on the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Protection of School Communities) Bill 2021. As a former educator I will contend that this bill is essential in ensuring schools are safe places of work and learning for staff and students, reflecting the government’s strong commitment to Victorian workplaces being safe workplaces. As set out in the second-reading speech, students perform better in a school environment where staff feel safe, supported and have the training and skills they need to teach safely.
I would just like to begin, before jumping into some of the details of it, by acknowledging previous
speakers. The member for Croydon gave us a very clear understanding of the bill and so did the
member for Wendouree, based on her own extensive career as a teacher. In my own time I had 28 years as the founding principal of Loyola College in Watsonia and then another year as interim principal of Trinity Anglican College in Wodonga and Albury.
And during that time we experienced a certain amount of material like we are looking at today—but I do not think anything like the way things have developed. I did think in my final years in that job that things were getting tougher in the classroom, that there appeared to be more in the way of family break-ups, and since then I have looked back and my friends and colleagues have told me that things have gotten worse. That is in the non-government sector, and my experience in the government sector since becoming a member of Parliament tells me that it is much the same story.
One of the important things about this that I just need to mention is that when there is violence, when there is major disruption, the people who lose are not just the person who is causing the disruption but all the children round. Disruption interrupts learning; there is no question about that. Sometimes we can be forgiven for thinking, ‘What can we do here? Do we go for expulsion? Do we go for suspension?’ et cetera, but first and foremost we have to think about both the culprit, if you like, but also the effect on other children’s learning. They have rights also. That can be quite a difficult and frustrating balance for a principal to be involved in, and I know that from my own experience. I really welcome these developments, although I suppose there is the argument that they increase the paperwork and the bureaucracy—but hopefully not. Hopefully these things will be able to be used in a way that reflects well for the whole community and not be something that has to be invoked every minute of the day that a school is functioning—preferably not until the other end of the spectrum as a matter of last resort, if need be.
The bill reflects a recommendation of the Protective Schools Ministerial Taskforce on preventing and reducing violence and aggression. The Minister for Education agrees with the taskforce
recommendation and considers it necessary to enshrine in legislation the measures within the bill to address threatening or aggressive conduct towards school staff together with other strategies to meet occupational health and safety obligations. It is important to see the bill as part of a broader strategy addressing parent/carer aggression from only the very small minority of parents and carers who do not take the need for schools to be safe for staff, students and visitors seriously. To this end, an overarching communication strategy is also included, promoting positive engagement between parents, carers and school staff. It is just so important that this be seen as a comprehensive bill with a range of approaches and an acknowledgement of the situations that vary enormously within a school community.
The bill amends the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 by inserting a new paragraph enabling authorised persons to make school community safety orders prohibiting an adult who is not a staff member or a student at the school from engaging in disruptive conduct, including prohibiting that person’s attendance at a school or school-related place or engaging in the behaviour which resulted in the order being issued. Before an order is issued an authorised person needs to consider the impact of the order on the subject of the order, such as a disability or vulnerability that could cause or contribute to them acting in a certain way, and whether issuing an order is the best way to reduce the likelihood of harm occurring or reoccurring. Those who are subject to an order can make submissions as to why an order should not be issued, which must be taken into consideration by the authorised person before a final decision is made to issue the order.
A right provided in the bill is that a person subject to an order is able to apply for an internal merits review. If that person does not agree with the reviewer’s outcome, they are able to apply to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, VCAT, for external review. For non-compliance with an order, the secretary, for government schools, or the school’s proprietor, for non-government schools, may apply to a Magistrates Court for an order requiring compliance with the order, imposing a civil penalty of up to 60 penalty units or another order considered appropriate by the court.
It has been noted by some, including the Leader of the Opposition, that the laws proposed by the bill should also apply to students. Given the compulsory age requirements, the rights of children to be protected by virtue of them being children under the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, it would be inappropriate for the scheme to apply to students and other children. The government recognises it is not fitting for a punitive approach to be applied to minors engaging in violence and aggression, which would be the result of applying the civil penalty provisions of the scheme— including a financial penalty. The best way of dealing with such behaviour is for it to be dealt with and prevented by the Department of Education and Training, whose officers are able to provide ongoing specialised support to schools.
The department has a range of initiatives designed to assist Victorian schools to respond to challenging behaviours. These include building resilience and promoting respectful relationships. The department’s attention and response to challenging student behaviour, acknowledging it requires a more sensitive and tailored approach, has seen other measures put in place, including schoolwide positive behaviour support at government schools, which incorporates a range of schoolwide, targeted and individual strategies needed to positively engage students in learning, and a student engagement policy required at every school representing the school community’s expectations and aspirations to address and prevent bullying, promote regular school attendance and support positive behaviour.
It is also important to note that the government acknowledges that in serious cases it is in the best interests for the wellbeing of the whole school community for a student to be suspended or even expelled. This is a last resort when all other options of dealing with the student’s antisocial behaviour have not been successful and must be dealt with strictly in accordance with the provisions of the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 and the relevant statutory order made under the act. As a former school principal, I can say that principals do not take the complicated decision to suspend or expel a student lightly. It is important that the complex needs of some students and the broader safety and wellbeing of all students and staff are taken into consideration. If an expulsion is overturned at the expulsion review stage, in limited situations principals can appeal that decision for it to be considered with the assistance of a new independent panel. Importantly this will allow principals to outline safety concerns for students at the school and ensure the correct decision is made.
Although schools are able to enforce standards of behaviour for students, there is only a limited way in which standards in respect of parents, carers and other adult members of the school community can be enforced. This bill is important for, as I have endeavoured to show, there is a need to address the gap in setting and enforcing expected standards of behaviour in our schools for parents, carers and other adult members of the community. School communities should always be positive, safe and inclusive places of work and learning for everyone. Essential to this is protecting school staff by preventing and deterring violent and aggressive behaviours from adult members of the school community. I commend the bill to the house.
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