Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) (16:40): I rise today to speak to this Education and Training Reform Amendment (Protection of School Communities) Bill 2021. From the outset I am greatly troubled by this bill. I think the objectives of the bill are obviously commendable. The process in 2019 where there was a task force that reviewed the issues around violence in schools seemed to be an excellent process, the recommendations that came out of that task force were excellent, but this does not reflect that. It has been interesting to hear so many teachers speak today. I do not think I had quite fully recognised the number of teachers that are in our chamber, and it is very pleasing to hear their experience in this.
According to an independent wellbeing report conducted by the Australian Catholic University and Deakin University, more than 40 per cent of principals reported being a victim of physical violence in 2019. Threats of violence towards principals have increased dramatically. In a survey that was undertaken by the Victorian Principals Association they found that parents were the main offenders in threats, bullying, sexual harassment, conflicts and gossip. However, students were responsible for most cases of actual incidents of violence. This included, as we have heard in some of the contributions, punching principals, throwing broken glass at principals, holding them up with a knife.
Yes, all workers should be safe at work, without doubt, and the data shows us that workplace violence is on the rise across the board. The number of nurses that are now being assaulted in health settings has increased by a shocking 60 per cent, and that is just in the last three years. We know that we have seen rises in family and community violence as well. Now, I know that in 2016 the education union pleaded for greater protection of teachers, pointing to the link between the rising number of students with a disability entering schools and a spike in violence against teachers. This certainly does go to the nub of the advocacy and the letters that I have received during our investigation and review of this bill.
Does this bill address the rise in violence in our school communities? Does this bill address the rise in violence against staff from students? No. As I mentioned, that task force in 2019 made 12 recommendations on preventing and reducing violence and aggression in schools. The recommendations went towards preventing violence and said that it required a sustained, four-tiered, multifaceted approach. Building positive school climates and upskilling the education workforce, strengthening schools as safe workplaces, strengthening early intervention and information sharing and enhancing support for students with highly complex needs—all very sensible recommendations and very sensible broad objectives. They then went deeper into that with their recommendations, and these included maintaining the Safe Schools program, addressing violence and building cultural safety—the resilience that we want to see schools provide or help our students achieve.
It also talked about educating support staff and building skills in trauma-informed education strategies. I certainly heard Dr Bach, Mr Grimley and Ms Bath all speaking about the challenges that teachers had and the skills that they had to have to deal with those, which are really commendable. But the recommendations from this task force was that there needed to be more. It did say to consider ‘the benefits and risks of legislative change that enables harsher penalties for threatening or aggressive conduct towards school staff’. That is the only part of the task force recommendations that goes towards this bill—the only part. My team would say that maybe the benefits had been considered but certainly not the risks of this legislation for the families, the community and, ultimately and most importantly, the children.
Serious cases of violence and the threat of violence can and should be dealt with through existing legal mechanisms, notably personal safety intervention orders issued by a magistrate and obviously—obviously—when urgent assistance is required, the police. Now, the government has not explained to me or to the stakeholders that I spoke to why the police and personal safety intervention orders are not adequate, why we need more. I note that this is effectively creating a parallel system, but it is a parallel system where an official without legal training, without any I would say procedural fairness, can basically issue an intervention order, can actually even order a parent to participate in a program. If this is about addressing an imminent risk with a temporary measure, is that the time that you pull out your notebook and write in an interim order—when there is an imminent risk? I would say that is actually the time that you would ring the police.
I have got a number of questions that have been raised with me. I spoke to a number of stakeholders. I have heard from the members of the government that they had great consultation with Parents Victoria. Parents Victoria do not agree that this was good consultation. In fact I have two pages of questions from Parents Victoria about this. Probably the most important one is: what does harmful, threatening or abusive mean? I note that Mr Grimley also has raised a number of questions from Parents Victoria.
Also concerning was that the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service are listed as a supporter of this bill. It has been said that they support this bill, that they have been consulted on this bill. Well, I do not know if anyone else got today’s media release. They do not support this bill. They have huge concerns about this bill. They have said that the Parliament may have been misled by statements that they support this bill, because they do not. They think that this bill will create unfair outcomes for Aboriginal children and parents—and they are right.
I have not heard any evidence either today in the contributions, which I have listened to carefully, or in the briefings that we need this. Now, we know that education is a key protective factor that reduces the chances that marginalised children and particularly Aboriginal children will come into contact with the criminal justice system. We know keeping them in school is one of the most important ways of keeping children out of the justice system. Keeping kids engaged in school is so important.
I am sure that many of us have had an opportunity to read the landmark report Our Youth, Our Way, which was published this month by the Commission for Children and Young People. It found that leaving school early or experiencing chronic difficulties engaging in education while at school can push some children and young people towards the youth justice system. Now, I know that we all know that. Excluding parents from engaging with their children’s education risks those students themselves becoming disengaged. I think Mr Grimley also said if there is a parent that obviously has some issues I suspect that the best thing we need to do is keep that child engaged with the school.
So disengaging from the parent runs the real risk of disengaging that child. In 2016, 10.6 per cent of 15- to 24-year-olds in regional Victoria were disengaged with education compared to 8.4 per cent in the greater capital cities. Over 1 million kids are enrolled in school in Victoria, and that means that over 100 000 of them are disengaged. Now, I do not believe that this bill will service those families, and instead it will probably drive more children to disengagement.
The powers in this bill are highly intrusive and would ordinarily only be exercised by a court. Again, I say you are asking a principal to make some extraordinary considerations and decisions about a parent, including an order that could exclude them from school life for 12 months, and this does raise a lot of questions about how that parent can still remain engaged with their child’s education. Now, we also spoke to Amaze. They also have considerable concerns, and I know and I have no doubt that many of you have had meetings with parents of children who are on the spectrum, parents of children with disabilities and with special needs, and the fights and the battles that they go through to ensure that their child gets the education that they need and deserve—they are constantly battling at it. Today I raised as a constituent question that the Northern School for Autism does not have enough electricity at their school. They are running on generators because they have received no funding, because they have been overlooked time and time again for funding.
So yes, I think you are going to get some parents who are frustrated, but you know what? Disengaging them from the education system, telling them they cannot come near the school, that they cannot comment, that they cannot drop their kids off at school, is not the answer, and this is why I am really concerned about this bill. We also do not know what it means, and I think Mr Grimley raised this in his contribution—we do not know how many times, what harmful gossip is or what it means to make a threatening remark on social media, and I know from personal experience that threatening remarks on social media are viewed and read in very different ways by lots of different people. I think that the rights of families and children may be limited by the proposed bill. It interferes with the ability of parents, carers or family members who are subject to an order to attend school events, accompany children on excursions and school camps, volunteer at the school, communicate with school staff or otherwise engage with a child’s education at school.
What our community needs and what was recommended by the Protective Schools Ministerial Taskforce are safe and effective circuit-breakers to prevent violence and more clearly define mechanisms for addressing underlying causes of anger and frustration and for setting relations right and in the interests of all children who have a right to be educated in our school system. That is what the task force recommended. This bill does not do that. I will not go on, but South Australia and Queensland have taken a very different approach. South Australia included a statewide bullying prevention strategy. That was engaging with students, teachers, principals, parents and carers, and that appears to have great support from all different groups of people. The Queensland state government also recognised the need to increase support funding for children with disabilities and behavioural difficulties. They focused on student engagement and identified an engaged student as one who participates in all areas of school, feels included in the school, has feelings of belonging and is personally invested in and takes ownership of their learning.
This bill does not do this. This bill does not even attempt to do this, so I am greatly concerned about it. I am greatly concerned that the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service has not supported this bill.
They are feeling very frustrated that the Parliament may have been led to believe that they did support this bill. They are very concerned about the impact that this bill will have on the families most in need of support and the most marginalised children in Victoria.
Really, if there are problems like this, we should be dealing with them. We should be de-escalating this. We should not be kicking these parents out of the school family. We should be embracing them. We should be looking at early intervention to do this. That is what I want to see. That is what the task force recommended. That is not what is in this bill.
I have got a few questions which I will leave to the committee process, but in its current form the Reason Party cannot support this bill.
Fiona Patten MP
Leader of Reason
Member for Northern Metropolitan Region
Second reading 22/6/21