Eleven-year-old Micah had been attending the junior years of an elite faith-based private school in Victoria. He was doing very well academically and was talented musically.
But Micah had endured years of physical bullying at the school, which the school was aware of and had tried to handle with a series of ‘behavioural contracts’ with the offending boys. Parents of the boys were not generally contacted about the incidents.
Earlier this year, during Micah’s Year 6, one persistent bully, Ethan, took his attacks further. Ethan, a larger boy than Micah, was also in Micah’s school year.
Micah and his mother, Gaelene, both spoke with the Commissioner. Micah explained how he’d made his way to the locker area one morning. ‘So I was bent over picking up my lunchbox … and then I felt two hands grip my hips… and then I felt somebody’s penis push into my bum just above my anus.’
‘I looked around and it was Ethan.’
Micah was upset when he learnt a couple of his friends had cheered on the ‘humping’. A little later that day Micah was again in a common area of the school. ‘I was bent over tying my shoelace with my bum to the wall because I was scared of getting humped again. Then he came over and humped me in the head, twice.’ Ethan made grunting noises to go along with his thrusting. ‘It was just like, “Her-agh, her-agh!”’
Teachers responded when Micah reported the incidents. Ethan was brought in to apologise to Micah. ‘Guess what he said? “Sorry for humping you. Can we be friends?”’
‘What the hell, it’s not fine. I said, “No, we can’t be friends. But thanks for the apology”.’
Gaelene believes the school’s first reaction was to minimise the offence in an effort to keep things quiet and contained. She was told by teachers that Micah had been ‘pushed’ by Ethan and that Ethan had apologised. When Gaelene discussed it with Micah he reacted angrily. ‘I said, “Pushed me? He didn’t push me - he humped me”.’
Gaelene comes from a legal background. She arranged meetings with senior staff at the school to point out that ‘humping’ constitutes sexual assault and that the school needed to deal with the incident properly. Micah was in the first few meetings with his mother and the deputy head. Ethan was also present. Micah said:
‘And it was like, “So Ethan, you didn’t know what you were doing and you didn’t have any sexual intent, did you?” And Ethan would just go, “Nar, nope, no sexual intent”. And I was just thinking to myself at that very moment, “How could he not have any sexual intent? He’s stuck his penis up my bum”.’
A report was finally made to the Department of Human Services and the police were notified. Micah was interviewed by police and says he was cared for and taken seriously. The offender, Ethan, was cautioned by the police.
The school agreed to a set of protocols to keep Micah separated from Ethan, though they admitted the system wasn’t ‘failsafe’. Gaelene then emailed all of Micah’s teachers to stress the importance of keeping the two boys apart.
This email triggered a written response from the headmaster of the private school.
‘The [headmaster’s] letter just floored me that he would put in writing, “It’s an act of simulated sex. I’ve never heard that that’s serious”.’
He also wrote, ‘As inappropriate as the conduct of [Ethan] may have been, and as upsetting for your son as it was, I consider the use by you of such terms as “sexual assault”, “sexual abuse” and “serious criminal offence” in these circumstances to be unjustified and unprofessional.’
Gaelene is scathing. ‘I really feel he wants to intimidate me and shut it down.’
At the school the Year 6 boys were kept back at assembly. Micah and Ethan were asked to stand up. Micah recorded what the head of the junior school said: ‘Now it’s not in these two boys’ interest to have the humping incident talked about. We don’t want anyone to talk about it at all. This stays at school, end of discussion’.
Gaelene has looked for alternative schools for Micah as he reaches high school age. She believes they all have similar behaviour policies. ‘They call it bullying and one thing, and they just subsume – the sexual comes like a footnote. And you’ve got, “All this can be dealt with through mediative processes” and all of that which is good, but none of the parents would know that this could be dealt with by an immediate report out [to police or DHS].’
Gaelene believes others will suffer Micah’s experience under these policies. ‘You allow bullying without reporting to parents. You allow sexual abuse - specifically humping - without reporting it. When children are a victim you tell them and others not to talk about it.’
Micah wants to see a clear rule change. ‘If anybody does anything sexualised they should be either suspended or expelled.’