Student Activism and a School’s Duty of Care (Part Two)

Published
20 February 2019

This is the second part of a two-part series exploring how student activism and protesting can impact a school’s duty of care. Part One    outlined the recent student activism that has occurred in Australia and highlighted some of the issues this has created for schools. Part Two will explore some guidelines and recommendations for dealing with these issues.

Student activism is currently a “live issue” for schools and principals across Australia as School Strike 4 Climate Action seeks to galvanise students to protest again on Friday 15 March 2019. The anti-climate change inaction protests are part of a global movement with protests currently planned in over twenty five cities across Australia.

According to SBS News, “Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan claims that “professional activists” are “orchestrating” school student strikes against climate change”. "The Australian public will be cynical about a so-called student-led strike that is actually organised and orchestrated by professional activists," Mr Tehan said. "What is most appalling is this political group is organising their protest on March 15 when all schools and students across Australia are being asked to take part in the National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence to stand up to bullies and support the victims of bullying”.

Schools and principals want to nurture and encourage students to learn to think for themselves and consider complex social issues. However, they must also be mindful of the duty of care that they owe to students in the context of student activism and protests.

Supporting Students’ Voice

A Harvard Graduate School of Education article, “Responding to Student Protest”, makes sense of the multiple perspectives that can drive school responses to student protests. The key points from their article are for schools to support students’ right to protest without taking a stand on those views, and to encourage conversations about controversial issues throughout the year. It suggests letting students exercise their voices respectfully in school newspapers, podcasts, and YouTube channels, or in student council debates. (Note that CompliSpace recommends that the use of any print or social media for the voicing of student concerns is conducted under the monitoring and supervision of class teachers.) However, this is not the only aspect that schools must address.

Key Risks

Part One of this series highlighted three key areas of risk to schools and their students in relation to these types of protests i.e. risk to safety, non-attendance at school and reputation risk. Suggested school responses to these risks are discussed below.

Risk to Safety

School staff who become aware of planned protests should be encouraged to notify the school executive immediately who, in turn, should advise the police from the local area where the protest will be held. The safety risk to students is greatly reduced when police are present to monitor a protest, and their presence will give schools peace of mind that everything in the school’s power has been done to minimise the risk to safety.

The organisational plans of student protests on climate change or any other topical issue would usually be on the radar of Australian schools-the 15 March 2019 protest for example, is receiving a lot of media attention. Students generally do not want to leave their teachers out of the picture, as they are usually seeking support for the cause. This means staff would, hopefully, be aware of possible rallies or student driven protest actions.

This does not mean that teachers or schools should take sides – rather, it is recommended that they communicate their school policy on student activism and absenteeism, engage in supportive discussions and offer sensible and reasonable alternatives, in coordination with parents and responsible authorities such as the local council and police.

Non-attendance at School

In addition to notifying the police, the school should also advise parents and guardians that there is the possibility of planned protests and remind them about the school’s absentee policy. All parents should be informed of protest plans, regardless of their child’s desire to participate. This way, parents will be better informed about their responsibilities regarding their child’s possible absence from school to attend a protest.

Most schools have absentee policies that state that if a student is not attending school on any day, for any reason, that there must be formal correspondence from a parent or guardian that gives the student permission to be absent.

This assists with the delineation of duty of care responsibilities and it ensures that parents are made aware of, or are required to sanction, their child’s absence from school. In addition, it may also reduce the possibility of a student attending a protest in school uniform - especially if the protest relates to a matter that does not fit with the school’s mission or philosophy.

In most states and territories children of compulsory school age who are not at school can, if seen in a public place, be required to give their name and details to specified authorised persons such as police and there are sometimes additional powers to take the child home or to school.

Reputation Risk

Students who attend a protest in school uniform expose the school to potential reputation risk. This is further compounded if they are asked by the media to make statements. Students wearing the school uniform or making public comments at a protest (where they name their school) can be easily associated with the school and the reputation of the school could be affected by their actions. The school could be judged based on the way that the students conduct themselves and on their ‘political’ stances. Keen media interest in current student activism, the schools that they attend, and the proliferation of social media has made this even more problematic for schools.

Attendance of school staff at any protest is always a school decision, however, it is advisable to seek legal advice before permitting this. Schools that send staff to attend these events place themselves in a position of duty of care and therefore a staff/student relationship may exist. The school could then be held liable if a child is injured while at the event.

Preparing for the Possibility of Future Protests

Being prepared for the possibility of student activism, before it is imminent, will help to ensure schools are not caught off guard and will enable them to seek to manage the above risks. Below are some recommendations for this preparation:

  • Facilitate discussions regarding the management of student protests, perhaps by making it part of the agenda at a staff leadership meeting
  • Formulate a plan for managing the expectations of the school community and potential media attention. This plan may include monitoring and reporting the actions required in the lead up to an event, during an event and after an event
  • Ensure that the plan is consistent with school policies relating to student attendance, and student engagement with the media
  • Weave responses to student activism into staff training, in order to train teachers to respond in a supportive and non-discriminatory manner while expressing the specific requirements of the school
  • Schools may wish to consider developing a template letter to go out to parents if the school community becomes aware of planned protests
  • Closely monitor the news and key sources such as the readily accessible School Strike 4 Climate Action website for planned protest updates.

In short, being informed and media literate, encouraging educated discussion in the classroom and building policy and procedure that involves input from across the school community will enable the school to develop an acceptable response to student activism.

Conclusion

Schools and principals must seek to balance a number of competing factors in relation to student activism and protests. Being prepared and having considered policies and procedures that take these factors into account will assist schools and principals to better manage this complex issue.

Claudia Howell

Claudia is an Associate in the Melbourne office of CompliSpace. She assists schools in the development and implementation of tailored policy and risk management solutions. Claudia completed her Undergraduate degree in Arts (Media Communication and Cultural Studies, as well as History), and Social Science (Social and Public Policy) from the University of Queensland. She is currently studying a post-graduate certificate in Governance and Public Policy through UQ.