In the late 1990s, Sharon received a phone call from the New South Wales Department of Education to ask whether she remembered an incident of abuse from her primary school years. Sharon thought they were ringing to speak to her about her own abuse by her Grade 6 teacher at her state primary school.
Even though it was over 20 years since her sexual abuse, Sharon had never told anyone. In the discussion with the departmental staff member Sharon reported her abuse. The Department told her that there was nothing that could be done in relation to her allegations.
‘The man was so rude after I told him my story, he said “Oh well, it’s his word against yours”, that was it.’
At the time, Sharon was in the midst of a severe post-natal depression after the birth of her second child.
‘I didn’t have the strength or anything to challenge it … Today … there’s no way I would put up with that. It’s unacceptable.’
She pushed her trauma to the back of her mind but has recently come to realise how significant the impact of the abuse she suffered was, and how it was exacerbated by the response of the Department, especially as when she spoke to the Department the man was still teaching.
Sharon developed early and by 11 years old she had a bust. Her Grade 6 teacher would tell her that she ‘looked grown up’ and that she was ‘special’.
‘I thought he was a very nice teacher at first. He told me he was 26 [years old] and all that [personal] sort of stuff … Now when I look at it he was grooming me. He used to tell me … I looked nice.’
The grooming included special treatment and Sharon would often be singled out to perform tasks such as collecting a bag from his car, getting him lunch and running notes to the school office. The other students would tease her for being the teacher’s pet. He soon began to ask her to help him in the storeroom.
‘First of all he just started off touching me on the shoulders, or give me a little hug. And then … he … started rubbing his penis on the back of me as he passed by, or else if I was turned around, he’d rub himself like up against me and just sort of pause and push up against me. And he was a really big man so his chest was in my face.’
The abuse also occurred during sports activities in the afternoon after school. When they played tackle football, the teacher would encourage the other children to ‘play stacks’, where everyone would tackle one child and pile on top of them. Sharon was frequently the target and would be on the bottom of the stack.
‘He’d lie on me and I’d try to turn on my side … he’d push my legs apart with his pelvis right in my crutch … he’d be thrusting up against me [like intercourse].
‘After he was doing that … I said … the next time he went to do it, he said “I’ll squeeze” and I said “Well I’ll squash”. And more than once I actually did knee him in the groin.’
Sharon had been told about sex by her mother and she knew what the teacher was doing was wrong. She asked her mother if she could stop going to the after school activities but her mother thought they were good for her. The teacher also frequently asked Sharon to visit him at his house for holidays or weekends but she never went and never asked her parents if she could. She believes the abuse would have escalated if she had gone.
‘I didn’t realise he was grooming me, you know, all the compliments and “You’re so special” and “You look so grown up” … I didn’t realise he was just a putrid human being.’
Sharon was also vulnerable to the man’s grooming because her relationship with her father was difficult.
‘My father was an alcoholic … and I suppose he [the teacher] did make me feel special which is why I sort of let it go on.’
When she moved on to high school the abuse stopped. She never saw the man again.
Sharon hadn’t focused on her sexual abuse for some time until two years ago when she saw some promotional material for the Royal Commission. She became very distressed about her abuse and the attitude of the Department of Education. She decided to report the abuse to the police.
The police were helpful and took her allegations seriously. In the end though, their response was similar to the Education Department’s response.
‘[The detective] basically said there was nothing he could do. That’s twice, “it’s his word against mine” … I don’t think that’s good enough … I just wanted him questioned just to [let him] know that I haven’t forgotten and that what he did was wrong … And why didn’t the Education Department respond to anything?’
Sharon suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, has developed anxiety, has significant trust issues, and has recently tried to take her own life. Her mental health has been negatively affected by the reliving of her abuse twice with no closure. She also now understands that women who have been abused often experience more severe post-natal depression.
‘[It] affected me a lot … I didn’t realise it affected me so much but … I’m just sort of going backwards … I’m really upset and angry [about her abuser not being pursued] … I know nothing is really going to make it better I’ve just got to work through it myself.’
She still experiences considerable shame and guilt around the abuse and has been hypervigilant with her own children.
‘With my children, I only disclosed to them a few months ago and they said “Oh that’s why … why you’re so over protective of us”.’
Sharon is seeking compensation from the Department of Education.