Marla has always told her children that they can tell her anything. Whatever it is, she’ll never be angry. ‘I’ve also explained, especially to my girls, to never be ashamed – if there’s something you need to talk about, you can talk to me about it.’
So that’s exactly what her oldest daughter Ingrid did, when she was sexually abused by a student at the Queensland government high school she attended. Ingrid, who is intellectually impaired, was 13 when the abuse first occurred. She was a student in the special education program at the school, and so was the boy who abused her.
‘Jonno Jackson, he just asked me out – I said “No, I’m not into that stuff at the moment”’, Ingrid recalled. ‘He said “If you don’t go out with me I’ll get my dad to rape you” – he keeps asking me out and every time I say no and then he threatens me.’
Jonno began to sexually harass and molest Ingrid in class. He’d drop his pen on the floor in an excuse to look up her skirt, he’d touch her breasts as he walked by, and he’d put his leg on hers when they were sitting down.
‘I was scared to do anything … I’m too scared to hit anyone or push them away or yell at them.’
One day, finally, Ingrid stood up and loudly told Jonno to leave her alone. ‘The teacher turned round and said, “You can’t yell at the students, get out of the classroom”’, Ingrid said. ‘They thought I was picking on Jonno.’
As soon as Marla heard from Ingrid about Jonno’s behaviour, she tried to do something about it. She contacted the head of special education at the school, Peter Hamer, but he didn’t take her concerns seriously. When she reported it to other staff in the school, she was referred back to Hamer.
‘Every time I got sent back to him it would be the same thing. “Jonno has issues as well, we’re dealing with those issues” … They kept making excuses for his behaviour, basically, because he was in the special education unit.’
Months went by and the torment continued. ‘Jonno would get up to put rubbish in the bins then he’d trip and “accidentally” land on Ingrid’s boob, for instance’, Marla said.
‘I did everything I possibly could to deal with the situation.’
This involved repeated calls to the school and to the Department of Education – an exercise in yet more frustration. Each time Marla called she spoke to a different person. ‘It was terrible. You’re not really speaking to somebody specific. Each time I was told well, you will need to do this, or you will need to do that … Getting information was extremely difficult.’
As well, Marla has problems with her vision but the Department of Education would not bend in its requirement that all matters be put in a letter or an email. ‘Everything has to be in writing – all the times I’ve phoned count for nothing … It’s been very difficult’, she said.
Eventually Marla went to the police, but was told that unless Ingrid was prepared to press sexual assault charges against Jonno, there was nothing that could be done. The matter would have to be dealt with by the school. ‘Unfortunately we were caught in a web of just going round and round and round’, Marla said.
Hamer never dealt with the issue satisfactorily. ‘He kept saying to her, “Well, Ingrid, if you made an effort and tried to be his friend, things mightn’t escalate”’, Marla said. ‘She didn’t want to be his friend!’
Instead, Ingrid chose to move out of the special education unit into mainstream classes, where she struggled terribly, Marla said.
The school’s response was much more effective when in Year 12 Ingrid was sexually assaulted by another student. She was in a classroom on her own when the boy came in, fondled her breasts and put his hand down her pants. With the help of her friends, Ingrid filed an incident report and was seen immediately by the deputy principal. The boy’s parents were called, and he was suspended from the school.
The assault was reported to police and the boy was charged. But dealing with police was a ‘scary’ experience for Ingrid, she said. Because she had turned 18 since the time of the assault, she was treated as an adult and interviewed on her own. ‘The officer was kind of rude and that. She wasn’t as pleasant as they’re meant to be’, Ingrid said.
Marla had told police that Ingrid was very afraid, and that she should be allowed to have someone with her in the interview. But her concerns were ignored. As well, the officers had no experience in dealing with intellectual impairment, she said.
‘Ingrid tends to go from the end to the beginning and back to the middle, and she’s not sure where to place things’, Marla said. ‘And because she was doing that they were getting quite mad.’
Ingrid didn’t return to school after the assault. She was too frightened and unhappy, and kids were blaming her for getting the boy who assaulted her suspended. Thinking about her time there, she felt she should have had better support. Teachers need to help out more, she said.
‘I love school … I’m not bragging but I was a good kid in school. I never got in trouble. I always had my head down working. And for them not to see that was just stupid.’
Marla believes the school should have had better processes in place to deal with Jonno’s abuse of Ingrid. It wasn’t as if there were options – in the small regional town where they live, there was no other school Ingrid could attend. ‘That was the hardest part for me. I kept feeling responsible all the time, because I wasn’t able to take her out of this situation.’
Ingrid is sad that she didn’t complete Year 12. ‘It’s a huge change. I worked really hard all the way to Year 12. I wanted to do Year 12 and graduate.’ She wanted to ‘do all the girly stuff’ – get dressed up, go in the car, have photos taken. ‘It’s very upsetting’, she said.
As well, the opportunity to take up a school-based traineeship has been forfeited.
Marla said Ingrid has now been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. ‘It’s impacted on so many levels that I can’t even begin to say. She was such a bubbly, confident girl. Now she asks me about every little thing. Do I look okay in this? Should I do this or should I do that? …
‘I want her to be confident again, in herself … I want her to know that this is a really bad thing that’s happened to you, but there are good things out there. That’s what I tell her every day: “There are beautiful things out there in life that you are going to experience”. She doesn’t see them right now, but I keep saying – you will see them one day.’