Australia: Royal Commission findings and recommendations relevant to schools

On 15 December 2017, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse published its final report detailing the culmination of a five year inquiry into institutional responses to child sexual abuse in Australia.

The 17-volume work of the Royal Commission is one of the world's largest inquiries into child abuse. The Australian government must now consider the recommendations and consider which ones should be implemented.

Volume 13 is mandatory reading for all education professionals. It specifically focusses on institutional responses to child sexual abuse in schools. It examines the nature and adequacy of responses and draws out the contributing factors to child sexual abuse in schools. It makes recommendations to prevent child sexual abuse from occurring in schools.

According to the Royal Commission, given "the foundational role of schools in the lives of almost every child, they have a unique responsibility to keep children safe. This is not only to fulfil their child protection responsibilities, but also because being safe and supported at school is essential for effective learning."

SUMMARY OF KEY ISSUES IDENTIFED BY THE ROYAL COMMISSION INTO INSTITUTIONAL RESPONSES TO CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE

Some of the key learnings highlighted by the Royal Commission from its historical case studies suggest numerous governance failures have contributed to child sexual abuse occurring in schools are set out below.

  • poor leadership and governance, a lack of accountability, and a culture that prioritised protecting the school over the safety of children;
  • inadequate complaints processes, investigation and disciplinary action contributed to school leaders and staff failing to act on complaints or meet their obligations to report matters to external authorities;
  • in many cases, investigations were incompetent and not carried out by a qualified person or children were interviewed inappropriately. There was often confusion about the standard of proof required to substantiate allegations and the threshold for reporting suspected abuse;
  • the composition of school boards can contribute to poor governance, such as when boards are predominantly made up of school alumni with a personal stake in upholding the reputation of the school. In other cases, the Royal Commission heard evidence that school boards were not informed about allegations of child sexual abuse, and therefore could not be involved in responding to allegations;
  • poor human resource management practices contributed to failure to keep children safe in schools through inadequate recruitment practices – such as failing to undertake referee checks, allowing staff to work with children without a working with children check, and lack of induction processes;
  • individuals the subject of complaints not being disciplined or held to account – such as allowing teachers to resign when complaints of child sexual abuse were made, transferring them to other schools, or giving them positive references that enabled them to teach in other schools and thereby exposing other children to the risk of abuse;
  • poor management of non-teaching staff – such as failing to ensure that all staff who could come into contact with children are suitable and supported, including administrators, contractors, gardeners, sports coaches, parent volunteers and maintenance staff;
  • some schools did not have policies and procedures in place for preventing or responding to child sexual abuse. In other cases, policies and procedures were ineffective;
  • lack of information sharing between employers or between employers and teacher registration authorities, can enable perpetrators to continue to pose a risk to children by moving between schools or jurisdictions;
  • limited awareness of child sexual abuse among staff and inadequate training on policies and procedures may contribute to a failure to keep children safe in schools because it prevents staff from identifying and reporting potential indicators or 'warning signs' of child sexual abuse;
  • schools did not address the risks of private spaces on school grounds, which enabled perpetrators to be alone with children;
  • a poor understanding of, or confusion about, reporting obligations can act as a barrier to reporting in schools. Evidence was given that teachers could be unsure of what to do when they knew about, or suspected child sexual abuse;
  • ensuring children are safe online is a growing area of concern. The nature of the online environment and the rapidly evolving ways in which it is being used create risks that need to be identified, considered and minimised to better protect children from harm.

EIGHT KEY RECOMMENDATIONS WERE MADE BY THE ROYAL COMMISSION RELEVANT TO SCHOOLS

These included:

  • all schools should implement the Child Safe Standards identified by the Royal Commission. Detailed information about the Child Safe Standards and how they could be applied to better protect children in schools are referred to in Volume 6 of the Royal Commission's final report
  • state and territory independent oversight authorities responsible for implementing the Child Safe Standards should delegate to school registration authorities the responsibility for monitoring and enforcing the Child Safe Standards in government and non-government schools
  • school registration authorities should place particular emphasis on monitoring government and non-government boarding schools to ensure they meet the Child Safe Standards. Policy guidance and practical support should be provided to all boarding schools to meet these standards, including advice on complaint handling
  • the Australian, state and territory governments should ensure that needs-based funding arrangements for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boarding students are sufficient for schools and hostels to create child safe environments
  • boarding hostels for children and young people should implement the Child Safe Standards identified by the Royal Commission. State and territory independent oversight authorities should monitor and enforce the Child Safe Standards in these institutions
  • consistent with the Child Safe Standards, complaint handling policies for schools should include effective policies and procedures for managing complaints about children with harmful sexual behaviours
  • state and territory governments should provide nationally consistent and easily accessible guidance to teachers and principals on preventing and responding to child sexual abuse in all government and non-government schools
  • the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) should consider strengthening teacher registration requirements to better protect children from sexual abuse in schools. In particular, COAG should review minimum national requirements for assessing the suitability of teachers, and conducting disciplinary investigations

The Royal Commission also published a report in August 2015 relating to Working With Children Checks, recommending national uniformity in this area. Progress in implementing these reforms has not occurred to date, but is strongly recommended.

All recommendations made by the Royal Commission can be accessed here.

Paul O'Halloran
Education law
Colin Biggers & Paisley

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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