‘There were other staff having affairs with staff who were married. It was all so rampant and twisted on so many levels. And so many people, even if they weren’t involved, they knew – other teachers knew.’
Cheryl started at a new high school in the early 1980s when she was aged 15. She became socially involved with a group of teachers from the school. There were about five girls, including her best friend, who were in the ‘inner circle’. ‘We socialised with these people’, Cheryl told the Commissioner. ‘We were invited to their homes, we went out to dinner with them, to movies. There was no boundary on a social level outside of school.’
Cheryl was good at sport and the PE teacher Mark Vickers encouraged her and socialised with her. ‘It started off as friendship and probably hero worship I suppose, and it grew from there.’ Vickers began having sex with Cheryl when she was 15.
‘At the time I didn’t consider it abuse as I was agreeing with it.’ Cheryl believed that she was Vickers’ girlfriend and that he loved her. They met for sex in his office at lunchtime, the sports shed, the dark room at school and in his home.
Vickers was in his 30s. He told her not to tell anyone about their relationship. ‘It was all very clandestine. Obviously lots of lies both at school and at home to keep it happening.’
At the same time Cheryl was aware that some of the other teachers were also having sex with the students. There were more teachers who knew what was going on. The sexual activity with students would be discussed openly, but in a coded way. It was referred to as ‘growing orchids’.
Cheryl believes the principal of the school was in the dark about the affairs. ‘[He was a] very nice, kind man, but totally naive.’
Cheryl’s parents became aware that Vickers was having sex with her when Cheryl’s mother found her birth control pills. Cheryl told her what had been happening. ‘I don’t think she was surprised.’ Cheryl does not recall her mother saying much about the revelation at all. She believes her father was angry but he never discussed it with her. No action was taken by her parents.
In hindsight Cheryl feels her parents’ lack of intervention failed to protect her. ‘As a mother, I can’t believe what my parents did – or what they didn’t do. My daughter doesn’t know anything about this but she knows my boundaries. If that was her I’d have locked her up and driven her away.’
The abuse continued until Cheryl was 17. It ceased when she moved interstate to go to university.
Cheryl realises that Vickers’ actions were a huge breach of trust and a betrayal of her innocence. ‘It’s taken me a long time to get to that point. I recognised not long after it started happening that it was wrong. But we became entrapped in it. There was a certain amount of, “we were the chosen ones”.’
She now understands how vulnerable she was and how much responsibility teachers have to protect students. ‘I look at my 15-year-old daughter and her mindset and her lack of rationale sometimes … I think when I was 15 I thought I knew everything and I could make these decisions. It just blows me away now – you can’t.’
Cheryl has had to deal with bouts of depression through her life. She has trust issues and has had problems with relationships which she attributes to her teenage abuse.
Cheryl would like to see safeguards in the school system beefed up. Working with Children Checks through the police only weed out offenders who have been caught before. Clever operators can still slip through. And Cheryl wants to see specific training given to teachers to help them identify inappropriate relationships that may be developing between colleagues and students, where the line of trust and respect has been crossed.
The current system of mandatory reporting in state schools is a positive step forward, Cheryl believes. ‘If that was in place back then someone might have had the courage to do something … It amazes me that other people knew but no one ever, ever reported anything.’