Emma’s home life was difficult because her brother’s undiagnosed autism caused him to act out and become the main focus of her parents’ attention. She felt ‘forgotten’, and in this context encountered Don Miller, the Year 6 teacher.
Miller was aged somewhere between 50 and 60 and he was the most popular teacher in the Melbourne school because he was nice to children and would do things like forego lessons so they could dance. Miller also had a practice of getting girls to sit on his lap while he played with their bra straps and masturbated. Emma said she didn’t realise the full extent of what he was doing until she was older, and only much later again did she think of the behaviour as sexual abuse.
Nevertheless, Emma said she knew what Miller was doing was wrong and she didn’t like it. After she saw another girl on his lap and in some distress she approached the girl and together with several others they went to a female teacher, Mrs Barrett, to report what was happening.
‘I had a vague idea he shouldn’t be doing this and he could have lost his job.’ She said the reason for going to Mrs Barrett was so she would talk to Miller directly, but instead Emma and the other girls were called one-by-one to the principal’s office and questioned. As well as the principal, there were two other men plus Miller in the room.
‘They were all older men. I had to mention the word bra in front of them. It was so innocent in those days. You just didn’t talk to men about those things … I remember being absolutely terrified, looking at my hands.’
Emma told the Commissioner that it could have been quite different if there’d been a woman present, particularly Mrs Barrett whom the girls trusted. In any event, the girls were accused of making the story up with one of them targeted as the ‘ringleader’ who’d encouraged others along.
Emma didn’t hear anything further on the matter, but Miller’s behaviour stopped and she thought he’d been ordered not to be alone with any child. He remained at the school for another 18 months. Mrs Barrett didn’t follow up with the girls to ask what had transpired or check on their welfare. Emma said she would never have told her parents about Miller’s behaviour because her mother wouldn’t have believed her and any topic of a personal nature was off-limits to her father.
For years Emma didn’t think about Miller’s behaviour as sexual abuse. She recalled first bringing it up with a friend when she was in her 20s and was surprised when the friend reacted strongly. Emma said she then put it ‘back in a nice little box’ and only faced it again in 2013 when, at a school reunion, one of the women referred to Miller as ‘an old perve’. Emma said before that she’d thought of child abuse as sexual penetration.
In intervening years, Emma said she’d experienced health problems related to high alcohol use, anxiety and depression. She wasn’t sure how much her difficulties stemmed from Miller’s abuse or were related to family circumstance and other life events. It was important though, she thought, to acknowledge and call the abuse what it was. And she hoped that in current times and under similar circumstances more sensitivity would be given to responding to a child’s complaint about inappropriate behaviour. ‘Slight things could have made it so different.’