Susie grew up in a loving and stable family in Adelaide in the 1970s and 80s. Even though she had a physical disability, her parents treated Susie in exactly the same way they treated her sibling. She had no concept of being different at all. So she was bewildered when she had to attend a different school especially for kids with disabilities, an hour’s drive from home.
The government school was oppressive for Susie. ‘I hated it from the time I went there … I felt like it was Siberia.’ Her medical condition was quite rare but no one really tried to help her understand it.
Susie was touched on the genitals on three different occasions by different students, all of them older than her. The first time it happened she was six or seven years old. The last time it happened, she was nine or 10 and some girls had to jump on the boy, who was developmentally disabled, to get him to leave Susie alone.
Susie didn’t report these incidents to anyone. The general attitude of the school was tough. No one was allowed to feel sorry for themselves. ‘Even when teachers saw things happen, I was accused of tale-bearing.’
Susie grew to fear and distrust the two or three good teachers there. She felt like they were there to protect the school.
When a boy punched her in the vagina she did report it. ‘In fact I made a big song and dance about it, I was so angry.' Susie picked the strictest teacher to tell, because everyone was scared of him. ‘Guess what? I got in trouble for saying vagina really loudly and it was really inappropriate … If he got punished, I was not told.’
Susie ended up feeling like she was just something for boys to play with. When she was 13 this feeling was reinforced when she travelled home unaccompanied for the first time. As part of training to cope with her disability, she was expected to catch the train home without a support person. Susie had always been terrified of trains and train platforms. They were her worst nightmare. Her school had called her a ‘no hoper’ because she was scared of them.
On the way home Susie was befriended by a man on the station platform, who told her she had nice legs. She thought ‘shit, what do I do now?’ The man got on her train, followed her from the train station, molested her and made her touch his penis. ‘I was crying and I was begging him, please.’
She arrived home sobbing and told her parents. They rang the school, whose first response was kind. But later Susie was told by them to keep quiet and forget about it.
This time the abuse was reported to police by her parents but Susie was unable to identify the man who’d done it. She’s still angry at the school’s lack of support and by the fact that they made a 13-year-old girl with a disability travel home on her own without a support person. Also, ‘I’m absolutely furious that they made a 13-year-old girl stay quiet about something so horrendous’.
Susie left the school at 14 and went to two more high schools before she found one that she liked and that treated her well. At the second school, she was told she was moody and erratic and needed counselling. They didn’t say what she needed counselling for, even though the abuse would have been in her file. The counsellors didn’t ask about it and Susie didn’t disclose it.
The third state school, which was not a special needs school, restored her faith in teachers and education. She finally felt supported and nurtured.
As an adult, Susie is prone to bouts of agoraphobia which can take months to get over. She also suffers post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. Her ability to be independently mobile has been affected by her childhood experiences, especially the sexual abuse at the train station.
She’s keen to have the first school she went to held accountable.
‘I want things to change', she told the Commissioner. ‘I’m sick to death of this brainwashing and this turning blind eyes to things that should be dealt with. So many kids come out of there with mental health issues, not just the physical disability they went in with.'
Susie recommended better training for teachers so that they can pick up on changes in kids’ behaviour. ‘Why is a child behaving that way? If they can’t work it out, call the counsellors in straight away.’
Also, Susie regrets that teachers are now discouraged from hugging students. ‘One of the things that would have helped me so much was a hug. So many times I was not allowed to hug people.’
Teachers should be able to teach kids how to regain trust, if they’ve lost it by being sexually abused. It’s a big ask, Susie said, but with the help of other support networks it should be possible.