Shari, who has a developmental disorder, used to love going to school. At her co-ed Catholic college in Melbourne in the early 2000s, she was a self-confessed nerd in Years 7 and 8, but her eagerness led to some ‘weird choices’ on the part of the college’s special needs coordinator, according to Shari’s mother Denise, who also came to the Commission.
‘If Shari answers more than three questions … report it to me,’ the coordinator told the class. So kids would start yelling out ‘You’ve got two more’, whenever Shari answered a question. In the playground they threatened to dob on her if she spoke out too much. And so a culture of victimising Shari began.
In Year 9, the bullying got physical. A boy called Edmund, who was the same age as Shari, injured her shoulder. The next day, Edmund slammed into her damaged shoulder, dropped her to the ground and grabbed the inside of her thigh. Shari kneed him in self defence.
Denise then got ‘phone call after phone call. “Come to the office. Your daughter’s kicked this boy”’.
Edmund claimed Shari used her foot to kick him. Shari said she didn’t. The school believed Edmund’s witnesses over Shari’s. Denise was dismayed that the school was prejudiced against Shari, when there’d been clear examples of bullying and harassment from Edmund over the previous three years.
Shari fell into a depression and did not go to school for a week. The day she came back she was called into the office by the vice-principal before school even started. Denise rang the principal, who yelled ‘I’m not going to take any orders from you. You can come and grab your daughter and leave the school if you’re not happy with the way we do things’.
Denise then rang the Catholic Education Office in an attempt to get a fair hearing. The school eventually discovered that Edmund had bullied two boys into trying to break Shari’s arm and that Edmund himself then attacked her. He then bullied the same boys into falsely witnessing against her.
Edmund was asked to apologise but he refused. The school social worker offered him counselling. That was his only punishment.
Shari’s mother reconciled with the principal. She told him, ‘I need to know my daughter is safe and she feels safe.’ Denise kept telling the school ‘there are programs to educate kids’.
When it was discovered that Edmund was trying to find ways to get Shari expelled, the two children were segregated. However, Edmund kept trying to make contact with her. In fact, ‘He didn’t give up’. In Year 10, at Edmund’s request, the segregation was lifted.
In the early 2010s, Edmund kicked out at Shari on the sports field, but there was no way she was going to report it, after what she’d been through the year before.
The next day Edmund again sexually abused Shari – holding her up against a wall and grabbing her crotch. Denise reported it to the school but the principal didn’t seem interested. He delegated the assault to a new coordinator, Mr Giles, who did not know the history between Shari and Edmund and wouldn’t give Shari updates on what was happening. Nor did the school suggest she report it to the police. ‘I don’t think they wanted … to look bad.’
It got to the point where Giles ignored Shari. Twice he turned his back on her. Shari ‘just fell in a heap’, Denise told the Commissioner.
Shari wanted to know what was going to happen ‘and they said it was none of [my] business … So in my head, they didn’t take me seriously’.
Many of the teachers didn’t understand how to talk to Shari properly, including Giles. He’d say to her, ‘Look into my eyes. I’m not going to start until you look into my eyes’.
Shari went into a depression and stayed in bed for two weeks. She asked Denise ‘How many times are you going to forgive and forget this school? They’ve done so many things. I can’t take any more’.
Edmund got a lunchtime detention and the matter went no further.
When Denise reported the sexual assaults, including a ‘sexting’ incident, to the police, Shari was interviewed by the Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Teams (SOCIT). Her mother wasn’t allowed into the interview. SOCIT did not offer her any special support, despite her diagnosis.
SOCIT asked Shari if she could say without reasonable doubt that the sexting was intended for her. (They insisted the other incidents were separate.) ‘I said “I don’t know what’s in his mind”.’ Shari said the interview was really scary. ‘I didn’t feel like they took any notice of what I was saying.’ Ultimately, she was a bit relieved it went no further.
SOCIT did confirm that the allegations constituted sexual assault and the school should have responded better.
When Shari told her parents that Edmund had actually put his hands down her pants during the last assault, the school took it more seriously. Again she went to SOCIT but the same problems arose during the interview.
Shari went to a different school for a while but then wanted to return to the college. A youth constable that Shari and her mother had been in touch with about the bullying promised that he’d check that the school was now safe for Shari. But the school would not give him access.
Shari went back anyway. One positive thing about returning to the school was that they now had a youth program in place. ‘We’ve been telling the school for three years there was serious bullying going on … They just kept saying “perceived, perceived, perceived”.’
As a result of the program, one girl apologised to Shari for bullying her. A whole history of mistreatment was acknowledged by several others.
Shari’s now going to another school. The college’s lack of ability to follow through with the right kind of care wore her down in the end. ‘I still feel sad and angry … really angry. And exhausted.’ They had promised things, like regular meetings, that didn’t happen. The school psychologist had promised to make things better but then told Shari there was nothing else she could do for her.
Shari told the Commissioner that an apology from the school would be good. She thinks school polices should be enforceable and that schools should be penalised for not following rules.
‘I think every school knows what to say. I think they should follow through with what they say.’
Shari is ahead of the class in her new school.
Shari’s old principal had told her mother she’d be better off developing a resilient daughter than complaining.
‘Can’t he see the resilience?’ Denise asked the Commissioner.