Testimonies given this week by key leaders of an elite Sydney boys school (the School) at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission) demonstrate how important it is for school leaders to 'lead from the top' in order to ensure that their school has an appropriate culture in place regarding the handling of child abuse incidents.
As reported by the ABC, the conflicting evidence given by the Principal and the Deputy Principal of the School about the events that took place in the School's boarding house in 2000 has lead to scrutiny of the Principal's leadership at the School.
While the Principal thought that the student conduct in question was only a boarding house 'rumble’ that had gone too far, the reality was that others at the School viewed the conduct much more seriously.
The Royal Commission examined whether the School responded appropriately to allegations of rape and attempted rape of boarding house students that occurred approximately 16 years ago. As reported by the ABC, Deputy Principal Peter Green testified at the Royal Commission that he submitted incident reports alleging multiple assaults on August 11, 2000 to the Principal Milton Cujes. Mr Green asserted that he discussed those reports with Principal Cujes and that the Principal ‘reacted in shock’.
Principal Cujes, however, denied receiving any of the incident reports and alleged Mr Green did not brief him properly that day as to the extent of the severity of those allegations. He had the impression it was only a boarding house ‘rumble’. Consequently, the senior boys accused of the assault were suspended for a weekend, returning to the boarding house the following week.
However, former School counsellor Katherine Lumsdaine testified that she conducted her own investigation of the students’ complaints because the School took no action.
When the Royal Commission asked whether Principal Cujes accepted that he had failed to take proper steps in dealing with those rape allegations, Principal Cujes said that only if he had known of the incident reports, would he have taken further actions to determine whether it was reasonable to notify the authorities. In other words, the Principal's defence was that he could not act appropriately because he did not believe he knew of the alleged abuse.
Principal's leadership challenged
Principal Cujes was questioned regarding his leadership at the School. The Commissioner asked, supposing Principal Cujes did not receive those reports, '…if a serious incident of this nature was not reported to you, and appropriate reporting to the authorities was not taken, it suggests a failure in the management of your school, doesn’t it?'” Principal Cujes agreed with this proposition and accepted that the School could have done better in the situation.
Embarrassingly for the Principal, he was forced to deny the accusation from Ms Lumsdaine's lawyer that his handling of the boarding house incidents demonstrated that he was 'all about protecting the reputation of the school above and beyond everything else, including the welfare of those children.'
While it is understandable for witnesses to have hazy memories of events which occurred almost 20 years ago, the fact that two senior leaders of a school recalled such conflicting details of serious events that allegedly occurred and how the School reacted to those events, is troubling. Furthermore, the fact that the Principal's view of the students' conduct as being merely boarding house 'rumble' seriously contradicted how the Deputy Principal and the counsellor viewed the conduct, suggests that at the time, the School did not have a shared culture of awareness or ''compliance'' in place at the time the events allegedly occurred.
Why is culture important?
Last month, James Field, Managing Director of CompliSpace, presented at the ANZELA Conference in New Zealand on the topic ‘Compliance with Current and Future Child Protection Laws – Embedding a Child Protection Culture. How can this be achieved?’ The Paper presented at the ANZELA Conference is available here.
The Paper explains that having a 'culture of compliance' is essential for an organisation to meet its obligations under federal and state or territory laws and that it is critical that the leaders of an organisation ensure that the organisation has such a culture in place. A failure to do so can lead to those leaders breaching their personal legal duties.
When a school does not have a positive child protection culture, certain behaviours may be overlooked, creating an unintended tolerance for inappropriate behaviour.
Apart from the obvious damage to the lives of child abuse victims caused by a poor culture, the consequences for schools and their owners may include claims for financial redress as well as reputational damage, similar to that now experienced by the School.
While the investigation into how the School handled the boarding house allegations has not lead to findings of fact as to what actually occurred, the Commission's questioning has implied that the Principal's views on student conduct may have been symptomatic of the culture at the School where such behaviour was not seen as being inappropriate, let alone abusive.
Legal reform emphasises the importance of culture
Unlike 20 years ago, today's legal landscape in Australia is dominated by the constant legislative reform of child protection laws. These changes have been introduced through civil and criminal law reform, principle-based legislation and amendments to school registration standards.
A common theme across all the jurisdictions has been the principle that 'child protection is everyone’s business'. To do this a culture of child protection is needed.
Embedding a child protection culture through robust school leadership is gaining momentum and child protection has become a priority of parliamentary concern.
Victoria has introduced laws (The Victorian Child Safe Standards and Ministerial Order 870) that specifically require schools to develop 'strategies to embed an organisational culture of child safety'.
South Australia’s Principles of Good Practice for Child Safe Environments promote a 'whole of community responsibility for the care and protection of the child'. To achieve this, a commitment to protecting and supporting children should be embedded in an organisation’s culture such that everyone is aware of their responsibility. Furthermore, guidance on the Principles states that 'the organisational culture should encourage and empower children to be able to raise and discuss their concerns or issues.'
Recently in Western Australia, changes to the the School Education Act 1999 (WA) have enabled the Education Minister to introduce a registration standard applicable to non-government schools which addresses 'the arrangements for preventing child abuse at schools and for responding to any such abuse which may occur.' The standard will take effect in January 2017 and will require schools to have in place the arrangements for preventing child abuse at schools including policies, procedures, practices and strategies for the prevention of grooming and child abuse.
But Victorian Child Safe Standards differ from the South Australian and Western Australian child protection regimes by stipulating an obligation to create a specific culture. Unlike South Australia and Western Australia, where the cultural requirement is perhaps an implied consequence of the creation of a child safe environment, Standard 1 of the Child Safe Standards require a Victorian school’s governing authority specifically to 'implement strategies to embed a culture of child safety'.
Even if it is not a legal requirement under state or territory law to embed a culture of child safety, schools across Australia will find that creating such a culture is essential if they want to ensure that they meet their child protection obligations.
The Role of the Principal
A school’s commitment to the creation and maintenance of a child safe culture must be kept high on its agenda for daily discussion. This commitment must be driven from the top and, in particular, from the school Principal who holds a unique position of leadership and authority within a school. Simply put, if a Principal does not understand the importance of strong governance, risk, compliance and policy management in creating a desired culture, or chooses to ignore it, it is unlikely that that the right culture will be established.
Refer to James Field's Paper for more information on how to create a child protection culture in your school, including guidance on how to 'lead from the top.'
What is your school currently doing to implement a child protection culture?