Gaby’s son Toby hadn’t wanted to go on the camp organised by his Sydney primary school last year. He was nine years old and new to the school, but the school’s deputy principal and the camp coordinator, Jane Arkley, talked him round.
Arkley rang Gaby and advised her that Toby had decided to go, and asked if that was all right with her. Gaby explained that the behaviour of some of the kids had put Toby off the camp, and Arkley assured her that it would be fine.
On the first evening of the camp Gaby got a phone call to say that Toby had been sexually assaulted by two boys his age. ‘My husband came and stood next to me because he could hear my voice tone.’
Gaby asked if Toby’s clothes had been removed. Arkley said no. Gaby asked to speak to Toby but Arkley said that would be very difficult because ‘there were a lot of children downstairs and she wouldn’t be able to find him. And besides, she had to ring the parents of the children who had done it’.
Gaby replied that if Arkley had talked to Toby about being assaulted she would surely recognise him. Arkley then put Toby on the phone but told Gaby she had to be quick. Gaby talked to him for about two minutes. ‘That’s not enough time … He takes a long time to say things.’
Toby told her he wanted to stay at the camp but Gaby later found out that that wasn’t true. He’d said that so the two other boys in his cabin – who’d seen what happened to Toby – wouldn’t be left alone.
Gaby soon found out some things that greatly alarmed her. When she rang one of the witnessing boys’ parents she discovered it was common knowledge that Jason and Alan, the boys who’d sexually abused Toby, had ‘very disturbed … very violent behaviours’. In fact, they’d been kept apart at previous camps. But Arkley had deliberately placed Toby in the cabin as a buffer between Jason and Alan and the two shyer boys, to reassure one of the boys’ parents.
When Toby came back from camp he told Gaby that all his clothes had been taken off. He said the assault had involved ‘putting penises in his bottom and that he’d told the deputy principal that’.
‘So what you had in the cabin was two very disturbed children, my son who is a very kind and gentle boy … a child who is socially withdrawn, and a refugee without a family.’
The camp rules dictated that kids stay in their cabins for shower time between 4.30pm and 5.30pm. It was the only time the teachers had to themselves, Arkley told Gaby. The kids were told that if they left their cabin they’d be sent home. It was also the time when Toby was sexually abused.
‘The two boys watched what happened, tried to stop it.’ But Alan and Jason took Toby into the bathroom and locked the door. The other boys couldn’t break it down.
After shower time Toby went straight to his own teacher and told him what happened. The matter was then taken to Arkley.
Gaby later told the school principal, Ms Deakin, that Arkley hadn’t told her all the facts about Toby’s abuse. Deakin replied that Gaby must be confused about what she’d been told by Arkley that night. However, she did admit that Arkley hadn’t followed her instructions to take notes of everything she was told by the children.
Several days after the camp, Toby came home from school very upset. He’d had to meet with the deputy principal and Jason and Alan. Arkley had told the three boys to come up with a single story. Toby said to Gaby, ‘I don’t know, Mummy. I don’t know if Jason took off my top while Alan chanted or Alan took off my top while Jason chanted … I don’t know the right answer. I’m terribly sorry’.
Gaby rang Arkley and told her ‘no more meetings with Toby about the incident’. Arkley replied that Gaby was not to contact the school outside the hours of 9am to 3pm.
Gaby met with Deakin to talk about sanctions against Arkley as well as the school’s and department’s guidelines for camps and how they respond to sexual abuse in the school.
Nothing happened as a result. Deakin said the matter would be referred to Family and Community Services.
Gaby has no issue with Jason and Alan being at the camp. ‘They’re entitled to go to camp. It’s more about who they’re placed with and how they’re supervised.’
‘I would have liked Arkley to give me a chance to make an informed decision about placing Toby in the cabin. Toby shouldn’t have been in that cabin.’
After the camp, Toby started losing his self-confidence, and he described himself as ‘stupid’. The other children teased him about the sexual abuse. When his reading skills deteriorated, Gaby met Deakin again to get help. Deakin said she was always pleased to meet with parents who want support for their children because then she can explain why there’s no money for that sort of thing. ‘I was like scum beneath her feet.’
Gaby also met with the director of schools for the area. He referred to the sexual abuse as ‘kiddy fiddling’, as though it had been consensual experimentation. He said he and the school principal weren’t senior enough to do anything about those issues. ‘But the issue for me is that if they’re not raising it at a system level, who is going to?’
Gaby got to the point where she didn’t want to be anywhere near the school.
‘I’m used to bureaucracies and I felt completely deflated by the lack of power I had as a parent as opposed to my normal powerful stance.’
Toby’s still less confident, but there’ve been gains, Gaby said.
‘At least I have a son who had the courage to tell … who is in a household where he can talk about it.’