‘We’ve been expecting Lesley Cooper to be locked up for a long, long time, since I was at school. All the kids did because he was notorious. He’d do it to everyone.’
For Zayn’s family it was a tradition to attend his elite Sydney boys’ school. He was proud in the late 1980s to follow in the footsteps of his father who was much involved in the old boys’ committee.
The school culture had a military influence, with each form year answerable to the one above. Anyone who complained or dobbed to the teachers was seen as weak, so whenever an older boy was harsh to Zayn he kept quiet and got on with his work. Zayn’s year was very tight knit as a result of the bullying some boys received.
‘You don’t say anything outside of the school … That was a culture that was instilled in us. You didn’t whinge, you just got on with it.’
Zayn was a cheeky kid who loved the performing arts. When he was six years old he came in contact with Lesley Cooper, the head of the performing arts department. Cooper was the only openly gay man Zayn had met, and he remembers feeling very wary of Cooper’s overbearing personality.
Cooper would tuck Zayn’s shirt down into his pants, fondling his genitals while doing so. This was done in front of his classmates, and Zayn recalls seeing Cooper do the same to other boys.
This sexual abuse occurred regularly for three years. Zayn didn’t know what Cooper was doing was wrong at the time. He felt pressured to remain quiet because he believed it was just part of the school’s culture, and couldn’t tell anyone or ask someone what to do because Cooper was his teacher. All the boys had to respect the teachers and he didn’t want to get into trouble.
‘You don’t know any better. If they say, “Why didn’t you go to someone?” Well, who were you supposed to go to? Them, the teachers?’
When he was 10 he confided in two of his favourite teachers and hoped something would be done about Cooper. However, both of these teachers ‘went missing’ a week after Zayn disclosed the details. He is unsure if anything was done about his accusation.
Shortly after this Zayn told his mother that he wasn’t learning anything from his performing arts activity. He was relieved when she removed him from the school’s program and enrolled him in external lessons. He didn’t want to be around Cooper and was careful to avoid him at all costs, but didn’t tell anyone else about the abuse.
When he started high school Zayn took up school performing arts lessons again. As Cooper was a teacher in the junior school Zayn didn’t run across him. Zayn had considerable success in his elective subjects and formed great friendships, and the rest of his time at the school was a positive one. After graduating he went to university.
Throughout his teens and adulthood Zayn never understood his extreme homophobia, but now realises that the abuse by Cooper gave him a bad view of all homosexual men. He told the Commissioner that this took several years to overcome and that he was disappointed it had been such an issue.
‘I shouldn’t have been shit scared of people who were gay [but] my first experience with someone who was openly gay was Lesley Cooper and he touched me … I was scared of them because I didn’t want them to touch me … I’ve worked on that one but it was real tough, and it shouldn’t have been. It shouldn’t have been that hard.’
Throughout his life Zayn has struggled to balance truth and lies because he learned to lie at school. He is confused about his self-image because the school taught him that, being privileged, opportunities would present themselves to him. When this didn't always happen, he found comfort in marijuana. Zayn spent most of his 20s abusing drugs because they drowned out the voices in his head.
Unable to understand why he was acting this way, Zayn sought counselling. In more recent times he has been sober, and in and out of therapy for several years, which has found very helpful.
It was only recently that Zayn discovered what Cooper did was a crime. A school friend disclosed the details of his own abuse, which triggered Zayn's memories. He believes many of his peers were also sexually abused but haven’t realised this.
‘A lot of us knew about it for so many years. Even up until the beginning of the Royal Commission, we didn’t know it was wrong.’
Zayn has considered taking legal action against the school, but doesn’t want to damage his family relationship, and has not reported Cooper to the police. He is aware that Cooper convicted of multiple sexual offences in recent years.