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Schools

This volume examines what we learned about institutional responses to child sexual abuse in schools. It examines the nature and adequacy of institutional responses and draws out the contributing factors to child sexual abuse in schools. It makes recommendations to prevent child sexual abuse from occurring in schools and, where it does occur, to help ensure effective responses to that abuse.

Summary

This volume examines what we learned about institutional responses to child sexual abuse in government and non-government (Catholic or Independent) primary and secondary schools. It examines the nature and adequacy of institutional responses and draws out the contributing factors to child sexual abuse in schools. It makes recommendations to prevent child sexual abuse from occurring in schools and, where it does occur, to help ensure effective responses to that abuse.

The institutional context

There is near universal enrolment in school for Australian children aged between six and 15 years. In 2016, almost 3.8 million children were enrolled in more than 9,400 Australian primary and secondary schools.

Australian schools fall under two broad sectors: government and non-government. In 2016, 70.5 per cent (6,634) of Australian schools were government schools and 29.5 per cent of schools (2,780) were non-government schools. Non-government schools are divided into either Catholic or Independent schools. In 2016, 18.5 per cent of all schools were Catholic schools and 11.0 per cent were Independent schools. Almost two-thirds (65.4 per cent) of students in Australia attend government schools.

Every government school and most Catholic schools belong to a system; most Independent schools do not. Each system has its own peak body, administrative arrangements and organisational structure.

The complex arrangements and responsibilities for the regulation, funding and administration of government and non-government schools are shared between the Australian Government and state and territory governments.

The role of schools in children’s lives

Schools are highly valued in Australian society and have a broader role than educating children in literacy, numeracy and other formal subjects. Schools promote children’s health, safety and wellbeing, and impart social and life skills, cultural values and, in the case of many non-government schools, religious values.

Certain programs relevant to the prevention of child sexual abuse are delivered in some Australian schools. The first type of program focuses on teaching age-appropriate personal safety messages and skills, the second on respectful relationships. Such programs are relevant in preventing harmful sexual behaviours by children, and can be complementary and linked to programs that focus on the prevention of child sexual abuse.

Teachers and school leaders are of fundamental importance for achieving the educational and wellbeing goals of schooling, and creating and sustaining learning environments in which students can thrive. As role models for children, teachers have the capacity to transform their lives, and to inspire and nurture them. Children and young people in commissioned research told us that after a friend or parent, they would turn to a teacher for help in a situation where they felt uncomfortable. A safe environment is an essential prerequisite for effective learning in schools.

Responsibilities to keep children safe in schools

The Australian Government has various domestic and international responsibilities to uphold children’s right to education and to protect children against sexual abuse in schools.

Australia has ratified international human rights treaties including the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1975 and Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, which recognise the right of a child to education and to be protected from sexual abuse.

The responsibility to protect children is shared by all Australian governments, institutions and the community, and is reflected in a range of legislation and policy instruments. Specific to schools, these mechanisms include the National Safe Schools Framework, legal and administrative requirements for school and teacher registration, Working With Children Checks (WWCCs), and reporting requirements.

The National Safe Schools Framework is an Australian Government initiative to provide policy guidance on how all Australian schools can be safe schools. Areas highlighted by the framework include the importance of a safe school environment for student wellbeing and effective learning, and the need to support young people to develop the understanding and skills to keep themselves safe.

Nature and extent of child sexual abuse in schools

Almost one in three of all survivors we heard about in private sessions (2,186 survivors or 31.8 per cent) told us they were sexually abused in a school setting as a child. Of these survivors:

  • three-quarters (75.9 per cent) said they were abused in non-government schools, of which 73.8 per cent identified a Catholic school and 26.4 per cent identified an Independent school
  • one-quarter (24.9 per cent) said they were abused in government schools
  • almost three-quarters (71.8 per cent) said they were abused in a religious school, while 4.1 per cent said they were abused in a secular non-government school
  • almost one in three (30.4 per cent) said they were abused in a boarding school setting, of which 96.8 per cent told us it was a non-government boarding school and 3.2 per cent identified a government boarding school. Of the non-government boarding schools, 57.0 per cent identified a Catholic school and 43.2 per cent identified an Independent school.

Survivors told us about abuse occurring in 1,069 schools, of which 55.8 per cent were non-government schools and 44.2 per cent were government schools. We heard of many instances of abuse ‘clusters’ in non-government schools, where a perpetrator or perpetrators would abuse multiple students over time.

Particular institutional factors in non-government schools may increase the risk of child sexual abuse and prevent disclosure and appropriate responses. Factors include concern for a school’s reputation and financial interests; hyper-masculine or hierarchical cultures; a sense of being part of a superior and privileged institution; the selection of ex-students for employment; and long-serving principals in governance structures with little or no accountability in the area of student wellbeing and safety. Non-government schools are also more likely than government schools to be boarding schools, or to employ people in religious ministry. We heard from a disproportionate number of survivors who were abused in a boarding school setting or by people in religious ministry in a school.

Of the survivors of school-based abuse who provided information about the perpetrator’s age, most (88.0 per cent) told us they were sexually abused by an adult, and the vast majority (96.2 per cent) of these survivors told us that the abuser was male. Where information was provided, 88.9 per cent told us they were abused by a single adult perpetrator, while 11.1 per cent told us they were abused by multiple adult perpetrators. Where information was provided, more than half (58.4 per cent) of survivors said that they were abused by teachers, and more than one-third (39.9 per cent) said they were abused by people in religious ministry.

As in other institutional contexts, we were told that perpetrators in school settings have used a wide range of tactics and strategies, including grooming, to facilitate the sexual abuse of a child. Perpetrators can groom the child, as well as other people in the child’s life, for example, their parents or carers, teachers and other staff members in schools. Consistent with research, we were also told that children were sexually abused in a range of different school locations, such as on school grounds, at school activities and in other related settings such as the home of a teacher.

We heard that when children experienced forms of abuse and neglect in schools other than sexual abuse, their ability to disclose sexual abuse was reduced and sexual abuse could become normalised.

Of the 2,186 survivors of school-based child sexual abuse we heard about in private sessions, 1,060 (48.5 per cent) told us they experienced other forms of abuse and neglect. Emotional maltreatment, such as psychological abuse, bullying, harassment, intimidation, social isolation and ridicule by adults and other children, was common alongside child sexual abuse in schools. This type of maltreatment occurred in both historical periods (pre-1990) and contemporary periods (from 1990 onwards).

Physical abuse by adults and other children was also a strong feature of child sexual abuse in schools. It appears to have been more common in historical periods, when physical punishment was an accepted form of discipline. The punishment was administered not only by teachers and other adult authority figures, but also by older children such as prefects, who were sometimes empowered to discipline younger children.

Psychological, physical and emotional violence by older students towards younger students was a particular feature we heard about in prestigious all-boys schools. We heard of incidences where older students were violent and emotionally abusive towards younger students, sometimes through hazing or harmful initiation practices intended to degrade and humiliate new students.

We were also told about many school-based survivors who were sexually abused by other children. Of the survivors who told us the age of the person who harmed them in a school setting, 14.1 per cent told us that they had been abused by a child.

Impacts of school-based sexual abuse on the lives of survivors

Survivors told us about the impacts of child sexual abuse in schools, and the subsequent responses of the relevant institutions, on their education.

The long-term consequences of these educational impacts have been the subject of limited research. However, compared to people who have not experienced abuse, survivors of child sexual abuse generally report poorer academic achievement.

In private sessions we heard from survivors about learning difficulties and a decline in academic performance following abuse. This included those who had been high achievers in school until their academic performance was affected by child sexual abuse.

Survivors also told us of unhappiness, despondency and distress at school after being sexually abused there, and many told us they had left school early as a result of the abuse. We also heard from survivors who became reluctant to engage with educational institutions later in life as a result of the abuse they experienced, with consequential impacts on their future prospects, income and self-esteem.

We identified numerous problems in the ways that schools responded to child sexual abuse in schools and met their responsibility to keep children safe. Many of these problems are common to other types of institutions and are summarised in Volumes 6, 7 and 8. However, certain features and risks of the school environment have influenced how these failures manifest in schools and magnify the impact of a failed response.

Contributing factors to child sexual abuse in schools

The failure to act on disclosures and complaints of institutional child sexual abuse can lead to the further abuse of victims, to other children being placed at risk of harm, and to perpetrators not being held accountable for their criminal behaviour. Our evidence shows that the schools examined in our public hearings, held as part of case studies into particular issues, did not respond adequately to reports of child sexual abuse. In particular, we heard about poor leadership and governance, a lack of accountability, and cultures that prioritised protecting the school over the safety of children. Inadequate complaints processes, investigations and disciplinary action contributed to school leaders and staff failing to act on complaints or meet their obligations to report matters to external authorities. Inadequate recordkeeping and sharing of information, including information about students who had been abused or had exhibited harmful sexual behaviours, perpetuated the risk of sexual abuse to children in schools.

School leadership, governance and culture

Ineffective leadership, flawed governance and unhealthy school cultures, particularly in some non-government schools, emerged as strong themes throughout our case studies, private sessions and research. We heard how these factors can have a strong influence on the way child sexual abuse is prevented, identified and responded to.

We were told about ineffective leadership, particularly in non-government schools, that prioritised protection of the school’s reputation and financial interests. Such school leaders contributed to unhealthy school cultures that made it difficult to detect abuse, challenging for children to disclose abuse, and unlikely that concerns would be reported. School leaders sometimes acted to protect the reputation of the religious institution associated with the school, where the identities of the two institutions were closely linked. We heard about teachers and other staff in schools who acted to protect a colleague who had been accused of child sexual abuse.

Poor governance processes are another contributing factor to the risk of child sexual abuse, particularly in non-government schools. Good governance processes ensure that every school and its leaders understand their obligations to keep children safe, and are held accountable if they do not. Poor governance processes that lack transparency can obscure pathways of responsibility for responding to child sexual abuse and prevent school leaders and schools boards being held accountable for failures. The composition of school boards can also contribute to poor governance, such as when boards are predominantly made up of school alumni with a personal stake in upholding the reputation of the school.

Our work has shown that certain institutional cultures in schools are a particularly strong factor in creating a risk of child sexual abuse. We were told about many harmful characteristics of school cultures that can allow more opportunities for abuse to occur and make it difficult to detect abuse when it has occurred.

We heard about schools that resembled ‘closed’ or ‘total’ institutions, that is, highly controlled and isolated, often within a physically confined space, and closed to the outside world. We observed that schools where children were sexually abused were often places where children also experienced physical and emotional abuse.

Cultures where males are encouraged to see themselves as powerful, aggressive and sexually eager may be present in all-boys schools, although they can be found in other environments. Boys in such hyper-masculine cultures may be more likely to exhibit harmful sexual behaviours, and this may be seen by others in the school as a healthy expression of masculinity. Homophobia is characteristic of such cultures and could be a barrier to boys disclosing sexual abuse by a male.

We heard that some schools have strong cultures of obedience to authority and that this could create the conditions for child sexual abuse to occur.

Children’s disempowerment

Adults in schools – principals, teachers, counsellors, nurses, people in religious ministry and boarding housemasters, for instance – have considerable authority. Many have the ability to significantly influence the academic success or other outcomes of children in schools. They can bestow privileges, or discipline, suspend or expel them from school. In this environment abuse can occur and go undetected.

Survivors of school-based abuse often told us they felt unable to speak up about sexual abuse. A fear of not being believed was common. In some cases, we heard that disclosing abuse could lead to further abuse, including other forms of abuse. Another fear related to the perpetrator’s ability to adversely affect the victim’s outcomes in school.

Students may also be reluctant to disclose abuse by their peers due to a culture of retribution against ‘dobbers’ that exists in some schools. Many survivors told us of their fear of the impact of disclosure on their family and community.

As in other institutional contexts, many survivors of school-based abuse said they did not disclose the sexual abuse because they did not know or were uncertain that what had happened to them was abusive. This uncertainty came from a range of factors, including ‘normalisation’ of child sexual abuse in the school setting and a lack of awareness in the school community of sexual abuse by children with harmful sexual behaviours. Some children were not taught to identify sexual abuse because they lacked access to appropriately tailored sex education.

Limited engagement with families and communities

Particular features of the school environment can make it difficult for schools to communicate openly with complainants, their parents and caregivers, and other school stakeholders. During our consultations we were told about the difficulties that schools face in deciding what they can tell affected parties about matters being investigated by the police.

In some cases schools did not tell parents that their child had made a complaint of sexual abuse, and did not subsequently keep parents informed about the school’s response to their child’s complaint. This prevented parents from supporting their distressed children, and from scrutinising how the school responded to the abuse.

In the case of children with harmful sexual behaviours, there are particular considerations about what information should be shared with the school community. Survivors and their families told us that schools did not communicate with them about the progress of their complaint. Some never learned whether the school took any action. Sometimes the subject of a complaint was moved from the school without any explanation.

There is a clear need to communicate with the parents or caregivers of the child who has caused harm as well as the families of the victims of abuse.

Insufficient consideration of equity and diverse needs

Schools are responsible for the safety of all students and can place some children at greater risk of abuse or a poor institutional response to abuse when they are not alert to the unique needs and vulnerabilities of some populations. As with other institutions, we heard that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, children with disability and children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds were more likely to experience this in schools.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds can experience specific impacts from racism and cultural isolation in schools. Children with disability can also experience discrimination. Mainstream education programs on respectful sexual relationships are often inaccessible to them, making it more difficult for some to identify and speak up about abuse.

Greater cultural safety in boarding schools and more effective supports for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children transitioning to and from boarding schools is needed.

Human resource management

Poor human resource management can contribute to failure to keep children safe in schools through:

  • inadequate recruitment practices – such as failing to undertake referee checks, allowing staff to work with children without a WWCC, and lack of induction processes
  • subjects of a complaint not being disciplined or held to account – such as allowing teachers to resign when complaints of child sexual abuse were made, transferring them to other schools, or giving them positive references that enabled them to teach in other schools and thereby exposing other children to the risk of abuse
  • poor management of non-teaching staff – such as failing to ensure that all staff who could come into contact with children are suitable and supported, including administrators, contractors, gardeners, sports coaches, parent volunteers and maintenance staff.
School policies and procedures

In our case studies and consultations, we heard about schools that did not have policies and procedures in place for preventing or responding to child sexual abuse. In other cases limitations in the policies and procedures that were in place failed to provide staff with adequate guidance on how to respond to incidents, and in some cases may have increased the likelihood of a negative outcome.

We heard that even where policies and procedures were in place, their poor implementation could leave staff with uncertainties on how to respond to reports or suspicions about child sexual abuse. Issues with implementation may include policies not being clearly communicated to staff, insufficient training being provided on the policies, or cultures where non-compliance with policies was commonplace.

The accessibility of policies and procedures was also identified as an issue, particularly where those policies were of interest to parties outside the school, such as parents and others in the school community.

We also identified a need for school policies and procedures to keep pace with changes in student and perpetrator behaviour arising from developments in technology in order to address children’s online safety.

Complaints processes

We heard about the barriers staff in a school might face in reporting a complaint externally, including institutional barriers, personal relationships, concerns about consequences and confusion about legislative requirements, and how these barriers might be greater in small or rural schools.

Poor complaint handling processes emerged as a strong theme in our examination of schools. We heard about schools that did not effectively investigate complaints, and had uncaring responses to victims.

Recordkeeping

We heard about poor records and recordkeeping practices by contemporary institutions – for example, some non-government schools – and about the adverse effects they have had on responding to child sexual abuse and alleviating the trauma of survivors. It is clear that institutional practices should be improved, including those in schools.

Information sharing

We have heard about the risks to children that arise when information about child sexual abuse by teachers is not shared. Lack of information sharing between teachers’ employers, or between employers and teacher registration authorities, can enable perpetrators to continue to pose a risk to children by moving between schools or jurisdictions. State and territory teacher registration laws provide for the recording (on teacher registers) and sharing of information about teachers by registration authorities, including information that may be relevant to child sexual abuse. However, there are significant inconsistencies in these laws across jurisdictions.

We have also heard that it is important that schools share information, relevant to child sexual abuse, about students transferring to new schools. Information may need to be shared – including across school systems and jurisdictions – where a transferring student with harmful sexual behaviours may pose risks to other students. This would enable the school to address risks to other students and to meet the transferring student’s therapeutic and support needs. Additionally, sharing information about transferring students who have experienced sexual abuse, and who as a consequence have particular support needs, may assist their new school to meet those needs.

Arrangements for sharing information about students between schools vary significantly across jurisdictions and school systems. We have been told, and our commissioned research suggests, that current arrangements for sharing information about students may have limitations.

Staff education and training

Limited awareness of child sexual abuse among staff and inadequate training on policies and procedures may contribute to a failure to keep children safe in schools. Schools can fail to detect abuse because limited awareness prevents staff from identifying and reporting potential indicators or ‘warning signs’ of child sexual abuse. For example, we heard that even where school staff observed grooming behaviour, they did not immediately recognise its link to child sexual abuse.

We heard that schools struggled in particular with the identification of children's harmful sexual behaviours. A common response of schools may be to minimise the behaviours or dismiss them as ‘child’s play’ or ‘just boys being boys’, resulting in children who have displayed or been subjected to harmful sexual behaviours not receiving the support or interventions that may be required.

We were also told that staff often received inadequate training and guidance on how to implement a school’s child protection policies and procedures. Delivering training in rural areas and in some boarding schools can pose particular challenges.

Continuous improvement and review

The purpose of a systems review is to identify the ‘root causes’ of an incident of child sexual abuse. Our work showed that schools commonly did not review the systems that had enabled the abuse to occur and to continue undetected. A systems review enables schools to learn from past failures, and consider systemic improvements to the institution’s policies and processes to better protect children in the future.

Risks in physical environments

Children have been abused in many different school settings – on school grounds, during school activities and in other school-related settings.

We were told that schools did not address the risks of private spaces on school grounds, which enabled perpetrators to be alone with children. Survivors told us that they were abused in private spaces including locked classrooms, secluded music rooms and school bathrooms. Survivors said some perpetrators who were school counsellors used the privacy afforded by their counselling rooms to abuse students. The size of a school’s premises and the number of students attending the school can influence the opportunities for child sexual abuse.

Many survivors told us about abuse that occurred in boarding houses and dormitories located on school grounds. As residential institutions, boarding houses combine many of the features that heighten risk for child sexual abuse. These settings have more opportunities for perpetrators to be alone with children, no parents to turn to for protection, and little external oversight of the institutions. Boarding facilities allow opportunities for abuse through lack of privacy and eroded personal boundaries. We learned during our public hearings that boarding facilities can present more opportunities for sexual abuse by children with harmful sexual behaviours due to a lack of supervision, supervision being delegated to older students, and students of different ages and genders being housed together. Schools should identify and mitigate risks in these environments.

Schools also failed to address the risks of child sexual abuse occurring in occasional activities, such as school camps and day excursions. School camps with overnight stays can increase perpetrators’ access to children, as well as children’s isolation from their parents or caregivers. School buses can present a risk of abuse because bus drivers are commonly the only adult on board and are unsupervised.

Risks in online environments

Ensuring children are safe online is a growing area of concern in communities and institutions. The nature of the online environment and the rapidly evolving ways in which it is being used create risks that need to be identified, considered and minimised to better protect children from harm. These risks include:

  • the use of online communications for grooming purposes by adult perpetrators
  • the use of digital technologies and platforms to produce, distribute, broadcast and traffic child exploitation materials, including images, video and live-streaming of sexual abuse of children
  • image-based abuse, including non-consensual sharing or publishing of sexual images of children.

Addressing these online risks is a critical aspect of creating child safe environments for schools. In doing so, a balanced approach is needed that acknowledges the positive role played by online technologies in young people’s lives.

Volumes 6, 7 and 8 present a national approach to making, improving and supporting child safe institutions. They explain how institutions can be made safer for children by better preventing, identifying, reporting and responding to institutional child sexual abuse.

Recommendations made in Volumes 6, 7 and 8 are of general application to institutions. The recommendations made in this volume for creating child safe schools are intended to supplement the general recommendations.

Initiatives to improve children’s safety in schools

Child sexual abuse prevention education for children and parents

In Volume 6, Making institutions child safe we outline a number of prevention initiatives to build child safe communities and recommend a national strategy for child sexual abuse prevention (see Recommendation 6.2 in Appendix A). The following initiatives delivered through schools would form part of this national strategy:

  • Prevention education for children delivered through preschool, school and other institutional settings should aim to increase knowledge and build skills to help reduce the risks of sexual abuse. Education should be integrated into existing school curricula and should make links with related education areas such as respectful relationships and sexuality, and be mandatory for all preschools and schools (see Recommendation 6.2b).
  • Prevention education for parents delivered through day care, preschool, school and other institutional or community settings should aim to increase knowledge and build skills to help reduce the risks to children of sexual abuse (see Recommendation 6.2c).
Child Safe Standards

As part of its Terms of Reference, the Royal Commission was required to inquire into what institutions and governments should do to better protect children against child sexual abuse and related matters in institutional contexts in the future. A key aspect of this task has been to examine what makes institutions ‘child safe’.

In Volume 6, Making institutions child safe we recommend that all institutions concerned with children implement the 10 Child Safe Standards identified by the Royal Commission (see Recommendation 6.5 in Appendix A). The institutions include government and non-government schools, education departments, system authorities for non-government schools, peak industry bodies, school registration bodies and teacher registration authorities.

We also make recommendations to the Australian Government and state and territory governments to ensure the Child Safe Standards are implemented in all institutions that engage in child-related work, including schools (see Recommendations 6.8, 6.9 and 6.13 in Appendix A).

In recognition of the crucial role of schools in the lives of almost all children, we recommend that all schools implement the Child Safe Standards identified by the Royal Commission (see Recommendation 13.1).

Monitoring and enforcing the Child Safe Standards through school registration

In our view, all Australian schools should have the same Child Safe Standards in place to protect all children. At present, inconsistent regulation between states and territories means that children could have more or less protection depending on where they attend school.

All Australian schools must be registered in accordance with state or territory laws. We therefore recommend that the registration process be the vehicle for implementing the Child Safe Standards in schools, by having relevant state and territory oversight bodies delegate responsibility for monitoring and enforcing compliance with the Child Safe Standards in government and non-government schools to school registration authorities (see Recommendation 13.2).

In carrying out these functions, school registration authorities should work cooperatively with other relevant bodies, including across school sectors and jurisdictions.

Supporting boarding schools to meet the Child Safe Standards

The risk of child sexual abuse is heightened in boarding schools compared to day schools because students spend up to 24 hours a day at school, living on school grounds. They are away from their families and under the care of other adults, and they are often left in groups of peers and with older students.

We recommend that state and territory governments, through school registration authorities, place particular emphasis on monitoring boarding schools to ensure they meet the Child Safe Standards (see Recommendation 13.3).

It is important that boarding schools provide adequate support for children facing a significant set of transitions at a developmentally vulnerable stage of life. We heard that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from remote communities entering boarding environments need particular help to support their transition and safety in boarding schools.

We recommend that the Australian Government and state and territory governments should ensure that needs-based funding arrangements for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boarding students are sufficient for schools and hostels to create child safe environments (see Recommendation 13.4).

There are also accommodation arrangements such as boarding hostels which service students who attend schools away from home. While many characteristics that contribute to a higher risk of child sexual abuse in boarding schools are likely to exist in these accommodation arrangements, they are not overseen by school registration authorities. To address this risk, we recommend boarding hostels that provide accommodation for children and young people implement the Child Safe Standards (see Recommendation 13.5). The independent state or territory oversight body or a sector regulator to which it delegates that responsibility should ensure accommodation services for children meet the Child Safe Standards.

Preventing and responding to online child sexual abuse in schools

The importance of creating safe online environments for children is reflected in our proposed Child Safe Standard 8: Physical and online environments minimise the opportunity for abuse to occur. To help meet Child Safe Standard 8, schools require more support.

The Australian Government’s Office of the eSafety Commissioner has a national leadership role in the online safety of children, and is best placed to lead this work. Online safety is a rapidly evolving and dynamic area of activity. Our recommendations reflect this, as well as the need for a combination of flexible, ongoing, nationally coordinated measures.

We conclude that key opportunities to strengthen children’s safety online and improve school responses to online child sexual abuse include:

  • a nationally consistent approach to online safety education embedded in school curriculums, starting from an early age and staged appropriately from Foundation year to Year 12. Vulnerable children who may not access formal school education programs should be engaged through targeted responses (see Recommendation 6.19 in Appendix A)
  • national online safety education aimed at parents and other community members to better support children’s safety online (see Recommendation 6.20 in Appendix A)
  • pre-service education and in-service staff training should be provided to support schools in creating safe online environments (see Recommendation 6.21 in Appendix A)
  • an e-safety framework and resources to support schools in creating child safe online environments, which includes strengthening institutional policies and procedures, and implementing codes of conduct (see Recommendation 6.22 in Appendix A)
  • centralised mechanisms in state and territory departments of education to support schools in managing responses when online incidents occur and ensuring the appropriate level of escalation of issues to relevant agencies (see Recommendation 6.23 in Appendix A).

Legal responsibilities of schools and their personnel

Civil liability

In our Redress and civil litigation report we recommend that an institution have the onus to prove that it exercised its duty of care. This means that if a survivor could prove that they were abused in an institution, it would be for the institution to prove that it did everything it reasonably could to avoid that person being damaged. The extent to which a school has implemented the Child Safe Standards may become relevant in determining whether the institution exercised reasonable care.

Criminal liability

In our Criminal justice report we recommend that states and territories introduce legislation to enact an offence for a failure to protect a child in a relevant institution from a substantial risk of sexual abuse by an adult associated with the institution.

We recommend relevant institutions should be defined to include institutions that operate facilities or provide services to children in circumstances where the children are in the care, supervision or control of the institution. This would encourage leaders of institutions to identify, mitigate and manage risks to children through, for example, the implementation of the Child Safe Standards.

Improving institutional responses to, and reporting of, child sexual abuse in schools

Our case studies and private sessions have shown problems with the way in which schools have responded to complaints of child sexual abuse. There are instances of schools failing to investigate and report allegations as well as schools conducting poor quality investigations. In particular, we have seen that many complaints about children with harmful sexual behaviours are made in schools, and that many schools are struggling to know how to respond to this type of complaint.

Child-focused complaints process

A child-focused complaints process helps children and others in institutions make complaints. We heard about schools with no policies or procedures to respond to complaints of child sexual abuse, and schools with inadequate policies and procedures.

We also heard about schools that had policies in place but they were not followed for various reasons: the guidance was confusing and not clearly communicated to staff, staff were not adequately trained, or there was a culture where policies were seen as unimportant. Lack of communication with the victim, families and the school community was also a common failure.

Child safe institutions, including schools, respond to complaints by immediately protecting children at risk and addressing complaints promptly, thoroughly and fairly. Volumes 6 and 7 discuss our Child Safe Standard 6: Processes to respond to complaints of child sexual abuse are child focused, which aims to ensure that all institutions respond in such a fashion (see Recommendation 6.6 in Appendix A).

Responding to complaints relating to children with harmful sexual behaviours

Schools experience particular difficulties in responding to complaints of harmful sexual behaviours by children. We saw evidence of critical failings by schools in past responses to abuse, as well as in contemporary responses.

Schools should pay particular attention to this issue in developing their complaint handling policies to help teachers and other school staff respond appropriately to children exhibiting harmful sexual behaviours.

Volume 10, Children with harmful sexual behaviours details particular issues to cover in complaint handling policies to address children with harmful sexual behaviours. In addition, we recommend that schools should have policies specifically for managing complaints about children with harmful sexual behaviours (see Recommendation 13.6).

Educational support for all children involved

Many survivors of child sexual abuse can experience long-term impacts on educational outcomes, including academic difficulties and a reluctance to engage with education later in life. Educational settings can play a key role in the recovery of children and young people who have experienced trauma. Conversely, we have heard that a lack of awareness by education providers of the way trauma can affect behaviour and learning can ‘inadvertently re-traumatise’ children. Education providers should be aware that children who are known to have experienced child sexual abuse may require a level of ongoing educational support.

Oversight of institutional complaint handling

Independent oversight of institutional complaint handling can improve identification and reporting of institutional child sexual abuse, improve the capacity of institutions to handle complaints, and strengthen institutions’ accountability and transparency for the way in which they respond to complaints.

In Australia, the only model for independent oversight of institutional responses to complaints of child abuse and neglect across multiple sectors is known as a reportable conduct scheme. These schemes oblige heads of institutions to notify an oversight body of any reportable allegation, conduct or conviction involving any of the institution’s employees, and provide for the oversight body to monitor the way institutions investigate and handle allegations.

In Volume 7, Improving institutional responding and reporting we recommend that state and territory governments should establish nationally consistent legislative schemes that cover institutions providing education services for children, including government and non-government schools, TAFEs and other institutions registered for senior secondary education or training, courses for overseas students or student exchange programs (see Recommendations 7.9–7.12 in Appendix A).

Recordkeeping and information sharing

Recordkeeping

In Volume 8, Recordkeeping and information sharing we recommend that institutions that engage in child-related work should implement five high-level principles for records and recordkeeping (see Recommendation 8.4 in Appendix A).

We recommend that institutions that engage in child-related work, including schools, should retain, for at least 45 years, records relating to child sexual abuse that has occurred, or is alleged to have occurred (see Recommendation 8.1 in Appendix A). This period is to allow for delayed disclosure of abuse by victims and take account of limitation periods for civil actions for child sexual abuse.

In Volume 8, we recommend that state and territory governments ensure that non-government schools operating in the state or territory are required to comply, as a minimum, with standards applicable to government schools in relation to the creation, maintenance and disposal of records relevant to child safety and wellbeing, including child sexual abuse (see Recommendation 8.5 in Appendix A).

Information sharing

Improved information sharing is a core component of our Child Safe Standard 1: Child safety is embedded in institutional leadership, governance and culture. Where there is a lack of information sharing in the schools sector, children may be put at risk of child sexual abuse by teachers and other school staff, as well as by other students.

In Volume 8, Recordkeeping and information sharing we recommend that Australian and state and territory governments implement a nationally consistent information sharing scheme that allows for intra-jurisdictional and inter-jurisdictional exchange of information relevant to children’s safety and wellbeing (see Recommendations 8.6–8.8 in Appendix A). We consider this scheme should enable information sharing between a range of bodies with responsibilities related to children’s safety and wellbeing. Our recommended scheme may provide a legislative basis for improved information sharing in the school sector, and between the school sector and other institutions and agencies.

In Volume 8 we also recommend specific reforms to improve arrangements for sharing information, relevant to child sexual abuse, in the school context. Our recommendations address information sharing about teachers, including the improvements that could be made to improve teacher registers as platforms for information sharing (see Recommendations 8.9–8.12 in Appendix A). We also address information sharing about students. In particular, we make recommendations about arrangements for sharing information between schools – including across sectors and jurisdictions – when a student transfers to a new school (see Recommendations 8.13–8.16 in Appendix A).

We have heard from stakeholders about the importance of safeguards in relation to information-sharing arrangements for teachers and students. Volume 8 discusses a range of safeguards concerning information sharing about teachers and students. We also make recommendations about safeguards in relation to both teachers’ and students’ information. More generally, where information is shared under our recommended information exchange scheme, the safeguards attached to that scheme will offer some important protections.

Staff education and training

Teachers are key to identifying and responding effectively to child sexual abuse in schools. Growing school and community expectations are placing greater demands on teachers to fulfil roles outside traditional teaching domains. Some of these additional demands on teachers cannot be completely divorced from their primary responsibility of education. A safe environment is necessary for effective education, and school leaders have the responsibility of creating and sustaining these environments. However, teachers and principals currently lack training, guidance and support in meeting these additional demands and in preventing, identifying and responding to child sexual abuse.

In Volume 6, Making institutions child safe we recommend prevention education for tertiary students studying at university, undertaking technical and further education, and vocational education and training courses before they enter child-related occupations, including as teachers. Education should aim to increase awareness and understanding of the prevention of child sexual abuse and potentially harmful sexual behaviours exhibited by children (see Recommendation 6.2 in Appendix A). Further, we recommend that online safety education is included as a component of this prevention education for tertiary students on these courses (see Recommendation 6.21 in Appendix A).

We also recommend that guidance on preventing and responding to child sexual abuse be issued under the national standard on maintaining student safety (see Recommendation 13.7). State and territory governments should also consider options for requiring teachers to undertake pre-service and in-service training on mandatory reporting that reflects current legislative requirements.

Teacher registration

Teacher registration is a key regulatory mechanism for ensuring that all teachers meet minimum quality standards, including the suitability of a person to work with children and be a teacher. We recommend that the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Education Council consider strengthening teacher registration requirements to improve national consistency of standards and the effectiveness of the requirements (see Recommendation 13.8).

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