“…An article on the Asia Pacific Forum.net website recently highlighted human rights abuses and bullying at the school, whereby in 2007 boys were dragged onto the school field and violated by their classmates.
Concerned parents reported the incident to the Human Rights Commissioner and calls were made for a national inquiry into pupil safety and school violence:
“The Human Rights Commission is to investigate schools’ anti-bullying policies to see whether children’s rights to safety are being protected. The move follows calls for a national inquiry by parents of bullying victims at Hutt Valley High School. The investigation is linked to a study by the children’s commissioner into pupil safety and school violence.
Chief Human Rights Commissioner Rosslyn Noonan agreed to analyse children’s human rights concerns after meeting Hutt Valley parents. Her report will focus on the right to safety and security of the person, the right to education and the rights of victims”.
It will consider how human rights are addressed by schools’ anti-bullying policies and make recommendations in situations in which policies are not protecting children.
The Government unveiled anti-bullying initiatives this year after a spate of school violence. Documents issued under the Official Information Act show Education Minister Chris Carter called for urgent action amid fears that schools were not treating bullying as a priority.
Last December nine Hutt Valley High School boys were dragged to the ground and violated by a pack of six classmates.
The victims’ parents wrote to the Human Rights Commission alleging a “systematic failure” by state agencies responsible for protecting children. They asked for a national inquiry into violence and human rights abuses in schools.
The commission has agreed to assist Children’s Commissioner Cindy Kiro’s school safety investigation, which is due to be issued in February.
The Hutt Valley parents’ spokesman welcomed the investigations, saying playground violence was “a much broader issue than one school … We’re talking about child abuse”.
Now, over four years later, the Ombudsmen’s office finally released their report into the human rights abuses at Hutt Valley High School.
It identified fear among teachers and lack of supervision, the school trying to minimise the seriousness of the assaults, the normalisation of a culture of violence, highlighted failings by a number of external organisations and called for anti-bullying programmes to be made mandatory in all New Zealand schools:
Ombudsmen want compulsory anti-bullying programmes in school
Tuesday, 6 September 2011, 2:45 pm
Press Release: Office of the Ombudsmen
Office of the Ombudsmen
Te Tari-o-NgāKaitiaki Mana Tangata
Ombudsmen want compulsory anti-bullying programmes in schools
The Ombudsmen’s Office is calling for anti-bullying programmes to be mandatory in all schools in the wake of its investigation into serious assaults at Hutt Valley High School.
And the Office also wants to see victims gaining a voice in school disciplinary processes and greater guidance for school discipline.
The report by Ombudsman David McGee was today tabled in Parliament following his investigation into complaints arising from a series of violent incidents that occurred at Hutt Valley High School in December 2007. The complaints were made by a group of parents against the school, Child Youth and Family and the Education Review Office.
In the report, David McGee says the serious assaults that occurred at the school in late 2007 were part of a “systemic problem of violence”, which the school had recognised but had not addressed satisfactorily.
“They were not referred to the Police or CYF for investigation, they were not adequately punished, and the school took it upon itself to interpret medical information in favour of the perpetrators. Victims’ parents were not told by the school that their children had been assaulted.”
There was a lack of student supervision outside of class time, with teachers not performing scheduled duty, some for fear of their own safety, he says.
A complaint against the Education Review Office that it had failed to properly assess the safety of the school was upheld. A complaint against Child Youth and Family was also upheld for its failure to manage a conflict of interest held by one of its staff who was also chair of the school’s board of trustees.
David McGee says that while the school understated the seriousness of the 2007 assaults, it had since been very proactive in addressing bullying and violence at the school. These steps had included introducing anti-bullying programmes and setting up a safety advisory group which included student representatives.
In his report, David McGee recommended school national administration guidelines be amended to make anti-bullying programmes compulsory in all schools, rather than it being simply a recommendation from ERO.
“I also consider the present disciplinary procedures could be improved by requiring principals and Boards of Trustees to consider the views of victims when making decisions on discipline, when the infringement at issue is bullying or violence.”
Victims could be given the opportunity to either provide a written victim impact statement or to attend board suspension hearings, he said.
David McGee also recommended the Ministry of Education provide schools with more specific guidance on the levels of punishment appropriate for various actions.
“This is because the situation at Hutt Valley High School demonstrates that the lack of appropriate sanctions can contribute to, and risk normalisation of, a culture of violence.”
While a rigid national template for school discipline would have little merit, the current “entirely discretionary” system risked producing arbitrary disciplinary decisions both within and between schools, he said.
The Ombudsman’s full report is available online at www.ombudsmen.parliament.nz
Among the complaints laid before the ombudsman was the following, 11th on the list:
“The BOT’s decisions on communications to parents put concerns about the financial implications of bad publicity on international student enrolments and other less important matters ahead of the harm done to victims. The Board did so by making statements that minimised the seriousness of what happened and saying the School had acted reasonably and responsibly in the handling of the incidents.”
The ombudsman upheld the complaint, saying in his report:
Having studied all the materials and talked to the School I am of the view that the School did minimise the seriousness of the incidents, and that that was symptomatic of a culture that had developed whereby incidents of violence were understated. Whether the financial implications of bad publicity factored into the BOT’s decision making about this as suggested by the complainants it is impossible to say.
Examples of School minimising incidents
As discussed above, the School minimised the seriousness of the assaults from the outset by imposing inappropriately lenient punishments on the perpetrators, as well as failing to notify the parents of the victims.
Additionally, the incidents appeared to be underplayed in subsequent comments made by the then Acting Principal and then BOT Chair to the media. Specifically, in a 16 January 2008 media report the then Acting Principal is quoted as having stated that “it wasn’t an assault where somebody had blood spilt” and the then BOT Chair is quoted as stating she had “understood the assaults were minor, so they were not referred to the Board for disciplinary action”.
The School also minimised the seriousness of the incidents in its initial attitude to external agency involvement. The MOE records surrounding the incident suggest that the then Acting Principal initially queried the need for the MOE to become involved in the matter. The papers also suggest that the School was reluctant to cooperate with the Police in the initial stages of the Police investigation.
Although the School subsequently cooperated with both the Police and the MOE, its refusal in the new year to accept a Police offer to provide a Police presence on the school grounds again suggests that the seriousness of the incidents was not acknowledged by the School.
School’s attitude to incidents
In my first meeting with the School management it was suggested that the assaults were not particularly serious given that a decision was made to deal with the perpetrators by means of a Police Alternate Family Group Conference rather than prosecutions. However the Alternate Family Group Conference was undertaken on the basis that serious crimes had been committed, including multiple counts of assault with a weapon, as well as threatening behaviour, common assault and sexual violation by unlawful sexual connection, and that the failure of the perpetrators to meet various conditions would result in the matters being brought before the courts. I do not consider that this means of dealing with the perpetrators indicates that their actions were not viewed as being serious.
A further example of the School seeming to underplay the events was the suggestion it made to me in our first meeting that the Police officer who investigated the offences was on a “crusade”, and out to “make a name for himself”, when in fact his investigations confirmed the information that the School already had before it, that is, that there had been numerous incidents of serious pack assault committed by pupils on pupils on the school grounds. In this regard I note that the Police confirmed to me that the officer who obtained the witness statements was highly regarded for his investigative skills.
Conclusion on Complaint 11
This complaint is sustained.”