‘I wanted them to refund the school fees and the fees I paid for the uniform because … it felt like I was paying for him to be abused. I know it sounds strange and maybe out there, but that’s what it felt like to me – that every day I was sending him to school paying for it all to happen …
‘And now when I come to think of it … you will see in a letter I have from Lachlan’s current school what he endured and the actions they took to help him and the fact that a public school can do what a private institution couldn’t do. I mean, it is possible.’
A few years ago Alfreda had become frustrated at what she saw as the lack of action taken by her son’s Queensland Catholic boys’ school in response to the bullying and sexual harassment of him by other boys. She’d enrolled Lachlan in the school because it had a good reputation and although he had Asperger’s syndrome he was keen to eventually study at university. From the time of his arrival Lachlan’s Year 8 classmates began to taunt him and make sexually explicit remarks about his mother. Despite Alfreda meeting with the school’s welfare officer, the behaviour of other boys continued throughout the year.
In the second term, Alfreda met the school principal and two boys were disciplined for their bullying, but this served only to make Lachlan the target of more verbal attacks. Alfreda thought the principal didn’t take the complaints seriously and the request by him for Lachlan to ‘stand up for himself’ or ‘face the problems’ wasn’t helpful.
Towards the middle of the year, one of the boys on the school bus assaulted Lachlan on several different occasions by pressing his fingers against Lachlan’s anus. When Alfreda found out, she again met the school principal who said Lachlan should have told him earlier about the incidents. The principal asked other boys whether they’d seen anything and they all denied knowledge of the events.
Alfreda reported the bullying and attempted sexual assaults to the Catholic Education Office (CEO) and met with its representatives. By then Lachlan was hiding in a cupboard so he wouldn’t have to go to school. An agreement was reached with the CEO whereby Lachlan would be home-schooled and given five sessions of counselling. However, Alfreda was unhappy with the arrangement and the promised tutoring was only two perfunctory lessons. A request for a refund of school fees was denied and Lachlan stated that he didn’t want counselling.
Eventually Alfreda took Lachlan out of the boys’ school and enrolled him in a public school. She said the contrast in environments was apparent from the first day and the new school took immediate action when other children started to call Lachlan names. This resulted in an immediate end to the behaviour.
‘They were fantastic, they were absolutely fantastic’, Alfreda said. ‘They gave him a little pass and if he felt a panic attack coming on he just had to discreetly show the pass to the teacher and he could go and just catch a breather and just go.’
The attempted assaults on Lachlan weren’t reported to Queensland Police at the time they occurred because the family of the boy on the bus had a history of violence and Alfreda was concerned for her safety. Now they were no longer living in the area she was seeking assistance to see what her options were in regard to police action.
She said she’d never sought financial compensation in relation to Lachlan’s treatment at school but remained concerned that he still had anxiety, panic attacks and nightmares.
‘The fact that Lachlan had to go on anti-depressants, something that I strongly am against, a child going on anti-depressants. He went on anti-depressants. I went on anti-depressants because I was an absolute mental case and wanted to kill every person in sight. I was just enraged.’
Lachlan’s stepfather, Dave, accompanied Alfreda to the private session with the Commissioner. He thought the problem with the Catholic boys’ school was that they didn’t want to admit any fault or wrongdoing. He didn’t think they’d learned anything from Lachlan’s experience because another family he knew had taken their son out of the school after he was also bullied.
‘The other item we tried to push for is for it not to happen to any more students’, Dave said. ‘Something to be done in the sense of training and recognition that it was happening and it needs to be fixed … What we’re trying to get across is recognition and understanding of what to look for: word signs, visual signs, behavioural signs.’