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Petra's story

‘I was left with this feeling of being completely let down by the system ... You grow up and you think policemen are there to help you. And you think if you send your kids to school they’re safe. That the people who are in charge of your kids will put their best interests first. And it was like, for quite a while, I just had a sense of not having trust in the world ... It was really quite difficult.’

Petra didn’t have any qualms about her son Harry going away on a Year 7 camp with his Christian school. Her other kids had all been on the camp previously, and had never had any problems.

Harry was not so fortunate. During the camp one of Harry’s teachers, Patrick Barnaby, initiated a game of strip poker with Harry and selected other boys. Harry ended up nude, and some of his classmates did too.

Barnaby then started a game where the boys would have to run through obstacles, while still undressed. This activity forced their hands away from their genitals, leaving them exposed.

Harry felt uncomfortable, but didn’t feel like he could leave. These activities were repeated every night of the camp, always behind a closed door so other staff couldn’t see.

Barnaby also slept in the dormitory with the boys. One night Harry got up to go to the toilet and Barnaby followed him into the bathroom, which again made him uncomfortable.

Initially, Harry didn’t tell his mother about these events. However, another one of the boys revealed Barnaby’s behaviour, and a senior staff member, Mr Brady, interviewed the boys individually about it. Brady did not first contact their parents, or give them an option to have a support person present.

Afterwards, Brady tried to contact Petra, but could not get through, so she found out about these incidents from another parent. Neither Brady nor anyone else from the school informed the police.

There was a perception in the school community that Brady was a friend of Barnaby’s, and that he had offered him the job there after he was dismissed from his previous post. When Petra finally spoke to Brady, he minimised the seriousness of Barnaby’s behaviour.

‘He said that “It was just a game”, that “This guy’s a lovely man, we all like him, he’s a family man”.’ Petra said she believed this matter should be the subject of mandatory reporting, but Brady advised her the school would deal with it internally.

‘He was saying, “Some families have a problem with it, and some don’t. Some can see it as just a game, and he’s an old-fashioned teacher”. And that really messes with your mind. Like it’s really crazy making.’ She started to wonder, ‘Am I making too much of a fuss?’

Barnaby was stood down from his position, ostensibly for ‘family reasons’. It was explained to Petra that the school used this excuse so as not to upset the boys, who might blame themselves if they knew he was leaving because of the poker games.

Nobody else was informed as to the actual reason Barnaby had left the school, apparently including the other teachers. Petra told the Commissioner that Barnaby’s departure should have been explained as a direct consequence of his inappropriate behaviour. ‘The boys needed to know: what Mr Barnaby did was wrong, and it wasn’t your fault.’

She suggested that a meeting should have been held with the boys and their parents, and the school should have told them ‘We’re really sorry that this happened, we trusted Mr Barnaby, it should never have happened’. There has been no follow-up from the school, or any reassurances about increased safety on future camps.

Harry was reluctant to return to school after the camp, and complained of stomach aches. For a while he didn’t want to participate in any of his usual social activities, and locked himself away in his room. Six months after the camp, he has gradually started seeing his friends again.

Petra met with the principal because she was unhappy with the school’s response. She had to ask for an apology, which the principal then clearly stated was from him personally – not the school. It seemed there was more concern for the school’s reputation than the welfare of the boys.

She does not think the school has fully accepted the implications or seriousness of this matter. ‘It’s been traumatic, but they’re trying to say that it’s not.’

Petra reported the incidents to police, and provided a formal statement. Harry declined to make a statement, and so the matter did not progress any further.

She does not think that police spoke with the other boys or their parents, and they seemed to be satisfied with the school’s handling of the allegations. The police did not appear to be sure whether a crime had been committed, although they recognised that Barnaby’s behaviour had been inappropriate.

The Department of Human Services Child Protection unit did not proceed with an investigation because Harry would not speak about it. Petra also spoke to the state’s Department of Education, but was told that as it was a private school that matter would be managed internally by the school. She is pursuing further avenues of complaint, although she has lost some trust in authorities.

Taking care of herself and her family through this time has been exhausting. ‘I find there are times I can step into it and take action, while at other times I’m just too distressed.’ She hopes they can put it all behind them soon. ‘Before the end of the year, I’d like to let it go.’

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