I rise today to speak about the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Protection of School Communities) Bill 2021. Once upon a time I was a schoolteacher. In fact my very first job was in Blackstone, a remote Aboriginal community in the Central Desert of Western Australia, and to say it was an eye-opener is a massive understatement. My accommodation at the time was a small caravan out the back of the school. I had to run a power extension and a phone extension from the school—under the school, actually—to my caravan, as there was absolutely nothing. A small gas stove allowed me to cook, but as a young 20-odd-year-old, well, I took my life in my own hands and tended to stick to the reliable staples of toasties and baked beans. The communities were alcohol free and you may be surprised, but this was a challenge for me. The closest pub was around 6 hours away in Uluru, and yes, there were times—many times—on a Friday afternoon after a hard week of teaching that the drive was well worth it. My teaching also took me to other remote communities in Warburton and finally Tjirrkarli, where I was fortunate enough to be principal of that school. I often look back on those times and still cannot believe it. It was a different world, and one that I had absolutely no idea about. I have often said of my time in the desert that the students, the parents and the elders taught me more about life, in particular the Indigenous way of life, than I ever taught them in the classroom. It was a privilege and something that I am forever grateful for. I loved that job. In fact it was more than just a job. Teaching is one of the most underrated professions going around. The importance of a teacher upon a child’s life cannot be underestimated. Now to the bill before us in this place. In Victoria we have had decades of surveys that tell us that principals and teachers are disproportionately being abused, threatened and intimidated by parents. In my time as a teacher I too was subjected to the threats and assaults from parents. Fortunately with my gift of the gab back then I was able to defuse those situations quite early on in the piece and escape without any injury. Other educators have not been so lucky. It is quite sad, really, because teachers have an incredible responsibility and for the most part they do everything in their power to make sure that each and every child gets a well-rounded education. They do not get paid enough, and they often do hours of overtime that is not recognised in their pay packet. In fact information has just come out on this exact issue actually, saying that our state school teachers work about 15 hours of unpaid overtime every week. This is simply astounding. I can confirm that even my wife, Mandy, in the early stages of her teaching career, currently at Northern Bay College in Corio, works incredibly long hours well past the school bell and quite often into weekends. She has already seen her fair share of volatile situations involving parents in schools. It is a thankless job. In relation to this bill, it stems from a recommendation by the Protective Schools Ministerial Taskforce commissioned by the Minister for Education that consulted over 500 people, including parents, teachers, support staff and students. Its purpose was to provide advice to the minister on how to prevent and reduce violence and aggression in schools. I think this was a great initiative, and I commend the government for allowing the task force to consult widely. I have heard though that after this report was handed down the consultation on what these recommendations might look like in legislation did not happen, and this is a bit disappointing. I will raise some concerns in a moment regarding the limited scope of this bill to deal with aggressive behaviour. Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party supports the two types of school safety orders that will be in place following the bill’s passage. Whilst we very much hope that regulations mandate mediation and non-punitive actions before these orders are taken out where possible, we know that in some instances they are necessary. Our teachers deserve to be safe at work. I would also like to state on the record that should acts of serious verbal or physical violence occur, including threats to kill or similar, Victoria Police should continue to be the default organisation contacted.
There may now be a duplicated process with an order being taken out, but we do need to take these acts of violence very seriously. I do not think serious acts of violence should be dealt with by an education department bureaucrat, and I would think that the government would very much agree. Our concern also relates to disadvantage to the child as a result of one of these orders. The child’s safety and any disadvantage they may experience from an immediate or ongoing school community safety order should be absolutely considered. I have two main queries in relation to this bill, and I hope the government might address them either in the committee stage or in their summing up in response. Firstly, I would like to know what the threshold to activate a community safety order is. How many Facebook comments or messages might constitute an action, for instance? What sort of verbal misconduct might constitute an action? We had a situation raised with us where culture played a part in the parent not realising that their loud speaking was being taken as abusive. Secondly, I would also like to know what sort of mediations or conversations need to take place before one of these orders is taken out. Obviously an immediate school community safety order would be needed in the immediacy of a situation, but does the school need to prove that it has tried to repair the relationship with the parent through dispute resolution or similar? I feel that this is integral to ensuring the ongoing relationship between the parent and the school. I would like to thank Parents Victoria for meeting with our staff to share their concerns. Now, whilst we will be supporting the bill, we would like to reiterate our message to the government that if we are trying to fix problems of aggression, bullying or harassment between parents and teachers, we need to also look at the reasons for this behaviour to fix the problem. Banning parents from school grounds may be necessary to keep teachers safe from harm, but we need to explore these options of mediation to fix the actual problem. I hope the government keeps this in mind when developing regulations for this bill when it is passed. The Greens amendments in this space go some way in addressing this issue, and they are something which we are looking at supporting. One last thing I would like to mention before concluding my contribution is in relation to eduSafe forms, which I have been alerted to. This bill talks to the issue of parent-to-school violence but ignores the very real problem of children-to-school violence. The problems are very much interrelated. The apple does not fall far from the tree. A child’s behaviour is often learned through the environment in which they are raised. Parents and other adults act as role models and children replicate the behaviour that they are immersed in, and that is a well-known fact. According to the Department of Education and Training website, eduSafe forms allow, and I quote: … all Department employees to report incidents, injuries and hazards themselves, or on behalf of other employees, if they are not able to. When lodged the reports go to the person’s direct supervisor for action. But it is interesting, because I have spoken to some teachers who only just found out that eduSafe exists. I have heard of incidents such as students approaching support staff with knives in home economics, but no eduSafe forms were completed because the staff were not aware of the threshold to which they should report. On that note, it sounds to me like each school sets its own thresholds, so you could have some schools that report each time a teacher is verbally abused and other schools that virtually never report at all. Lastly, these forms take quite a long time to fill out, so some teachers and support staff are discouraged from lodging a report even if the behaviour is undoubtedly reportable. Some teachers have told me that it can take up to 45 minutes to fill out a form. Given that statistic I mentioned earlier about teachers working 12 hours unpaid overtime a week on average, it is no wonder that they do not have time to fill out these forms. Raising the issue of children emulating adult behaviour is so important to this bill. It raises a very possible unintended consequence of the bill, and that is, when you ban a parent from the school, it may become an excuse for the child to disengage or, worse, to not show up. I wonder about the practical implications, such as if a parent has an order taken out against them and their child does not turn up, is the parent notified, and if so, how? These are the things we need to think about. The children most at risk of not showing up at school are the ones that need to be there the most. As you will catch me saying quite a bit this week, no doubt, we regularly ask ourselves who is looking after the children. I feel that this is a consideration that potentially got a little bit lost in the drafting of the bill. In summary, Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party will support this bill. We have some concerns that mediation and dispute resolution have not been mentioned as part of the formal process, and so I recommend that this be explored in the implementation of the bill. Further, I seek answers to my two queries, as mentioned previously, from the government if possible. Otherwise, we commend this bill to the house.