Tracey was sexually assaulted as a five-year-old, in the girls’ toilets at the government primary school she attended in a western suburb of Sydney. The incident occurred in the mid-1970s.
That was before schools adopted protocols such as buddy systems, intended to keep kids safe by making sure they weren’t outside the classroom on their own. In Tracey’s case, a buddy system would have made all the difference, she believes. She’d like to see today’s schools set up with security cameras in the toilets as well.
As it was, back then she asked her teacher for permission and was allowed to go to the toilets on her own.
There was a man in there, who called her out of the cubicle she’d gone into, and told her to lie on the cement floor. He spread open her legs, and molested her. He told her that if she screamed, he’d kill her. Tracey was terrified.
She remembers ‘everything’ about the assault, she said. ‘Still.’
After school that day, she told her mother what had happened. Her mother took her back to school and they met with the principal in her office.
‘That was humiliating. Very humiliating. She made me pull down my pants and told me that nothing happened because there was nothing on my pants, and I was lying’, Tracey recalled. ‘She said, “There was no man in the toilets today”. I said there was. “No, we didn’t have anyone here”.’
Tracey’s mother, who had believed her at first, came to accept the principal’s view of events. She agreed that Tracey must be lying. ‘She’s never really believed me ever since, really.’
No one believed Tracey, so nothing was done. Both the incident and the response of those key adults had lasting consequences for Tracey. She had nightmares for many years. She got flashbacks, and still gets them. It became very difficult for her to enter a public toilet. It affected her relationship with her mother and her teachers.
‘I didn’t feel that I could trust my mother, because she didn’t believe me and I was a liar and that didn’t happen. I think I detached from her in that sense. And at school I didn’t trust teachers growing up; I didn’t feel comfortable approaching the teacher for anything, because I hadn’t been listened to when I was five.’
A year or so after the assault Tracey’s family moved away from that suburb, and she changed schools. School became a difficult place for her, and she underperformed. She was always staring out the window, she said. As an adult, she has found it hard to form relationships.
‘Even though I’m a friendly person etc, I just don’t have any close friendships. I keep to myself, a lot. I don’t trust a lot of people, at all.’
When she was 18, Tracey reported the man’s assault to police. ‘Nothing happened. Nothing happened at all.’
The police took a statement but told her they would not be pursuing the matter. Too many years had passed. That was ‘rubbish’, Tracey told the Commissioner. She was confident she would have been able to identify her attacker. She wasn’t advised about seeking victims compensation, or offered counselling or anything else. ‘Not a thing. They were very unhelpful. They were horrible. They treated me like I was some sort of weird person.’
Tracey has never been able to persuade her mother that she told the truth about being assaulted. She believes the school principal should have reported the matter to police at the time. She would like to see her disciplined for her failure to do so.
‘That guy who did this to me is obviously a sick person. He may have done this hundreds of times’, she told the Commissioner.
‘Has that incident recurred? Has it happened after me? I’ve always wondered that.’