When Louise accepted a position teaching Indigenous students at a Lutheran boarding school, she saw it as an opportunity to help students forge productive and fulfilling lives. Instead she faced an ongoing battle to protect herself and the students under her care.
Louise told the Commissioner, ‘A lot of them felt unwanted by their parents and many came from backgrounds where English and literacy skills were poor, so coming to school probably felt safer to them than staying with their communities’.
But for some students that wasn’t necessarily the case. When a distressed 12-year-old student told Louise he’d witnessed the sexual assault of a classmate she reported it to the school principal, Barry Sanderson, expecting those involved to be punished.
‘Barry spoke to four boys aged around 14 or 15 who admitted they’d pushed Todd up against a wall and groped him, but Barry suggested to them it had happened “by accident”, and they all agreed. The way the principal dealt with them was disgusting, it was just brushed over.’
That night, Louise made a mandatory report of the incident to police, who attempted to interview Todd four days later, but he refused to speak. She later discovered Todd had been assaulted a second time by the same boys. She felt that the abuse was linked to the aggressive behaviour Todd demonstrated towards staff, which was largely ignored.
‘A few weeks after being assaulted himself, Todd grabbed a boarding house parent from behind and slammed his erection into her. She was left with deep bruises on her arms, but Barry just wrote it off as an accident.’
When teachers reported incidents to the authorities, Louise said, Barry did his best to ensure students were not available for police interviews.
‘Police had to provide a few hours’ notice if they were coming to interview students, and Barry would take them off in his car for hours, so they wouldn’t be at the school when the police came to interview them. Then nothing would be done. It was only when Todd grabbed my breasts when we were walking to school one day and then did it again in the classroom that Barry decided to send him back to his community.’
Louise lodged a report with police about the assaults on her, hoping it would ultimately lead to Todd receiving psychological help.
‘Todd desperately needed help. He was abusive and he was being abused. Barry accused me of making a mountain out of a molehill, and said I shouldn’t have gone to the police. I felt really bullied. The police were unable to find Todd anyway, so nothing came of my report.’
Louise rang the Lutheran Church Safe Place Service which had been set up to assist those wanting to report sexual abuse.
‘They made me feel validated and cared for, but I didn’t trust the Lutheran system.’
Afterwards, a Lutheran Professional Standards officer and a Lutheran school director invited Louise to meet with them and she aired her concerns about the welfare of children in the boarding school.
‘Nothing has been done since that meeting back in November. The Church has prepared an information kit that basically advises that if anyone’s contacted by the Royal Commission, they should seek advice from the Lutheran Professional Standards Unit first. In my experience if the Church receives information it doesn’t like, it effectively ignores it and that has to change.’
Louise understands Barry’s contract with the school hasn’t been renewed, but she still holds concerns for the welfare of students there and now fears other teachers in the school may be reluctant to step forward to report incidents of abuse, having watched the effect it’s had on her and her family.
‘I’ve been on worker’s compensation … because I’m suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. My income has been halved, so my family is struggling financially because I chose to stand up for what’s right. I’d like to see the Church take responsibility for the protection of its staff and students so this culture of allowing abuse in schools comes to an end.’