SMH: Minister to consult NSW Police on teenage sexual assault response

The NSW Education Department will liaise with police to determine how it responds to thousands of sexual assault claims that have emerged from within Sydney’s school communities.

Education Minister Sarah Mitchell told a budget estimates hearing on Wednesday that she had sought a meeting with NSW Police through the Police Minister’s office.

“If there’s more we need to be doing in a school setting, absolutely we need to be looking at that,” she said.

“But I would also like to get a read from the police in terms of their view on the issue.”

One Nation MP Mark Latham, chair of the NSW education committee, asked Education Department secretary Mark Scott whether he would seek a list of schools’ responses to the allegations, as well as complaints they have on record and within the policing system.

“I understand the accounts are harrowing, and, if valid, of enormous behavioural concern in our society,” Mr Latham said. “But we are getting to an unusual place of trial by media, and trial by internet. I’m asking what’s the evidence base and verification that’s being undertaken?”

Mr Latham also questioned the anonymity of the online testimonies written by hundreds of former students and revealed over the past two weeks.

Mr Scott said the anonymity had been a design feature of former Kambala student Chanel Contos’ website. “She has deliberately constructed the site in that way and I understand there are more names going forward,” he said.

“I think these are criminal matters and so the police are engaged with this. They have a senior officer who is involved and of course any request for information from the police we will co-operate with.”

He said sex crimes squad boss Stacey Maloney was addressing hundreds of private school heads, as well as representatives from the Catholic sector, at a meeting later this week. “The department is not directly involved in that. There will however be a meeting … with the Australian Human Rights Commission to discuss some of these matters,” Mr Scott said.

Ms Mitchell said she felt “confident with what we’re doing in schools to support our students and staff”, and noted that many of the women who had come forward shared experiences from the middle of the last decade.

The Department of Education has since introduced a mandatory 25-hour ‘life ready’ program for year 11 and 12, which addressed consent. The PDHPE syllabus was also updated in 2018 to include a more explicit focus on consent.

“In some sense we are ahead of the curve,” Ms Mitchell said. “If there are things we need to do to strengthen the teaching and what’s in the curriculum, we will do [that] as well… But again, I think it’s important that we’re having this conversation in a respectful way at the moment.

“It’s part of what we need to do more broadly … looking at cultures at specific schools, how parents can be a part of the solution, and what we all need to do [as] a society.”

The heads of nine eastern suburbs private schools met with Ms Contos on Tuesday night to discuss cultural problems identified in the testimonies.

In a joint statement, they said Ms Contos had told them students needed more holistic sex education from an earlier age and the needs of LGBTI+ students were not being met.

“She felt it was important that schools use their position to challenge a culture that objectifies women, normalises sexual abuse and assault, and shames and blames the victims of those assaults,” they said.

“Our meeting with Chanel helped reinforce the fact that there is much more we can do, and do earlier.”

The principals said they would audit their programs, share best practices, and find ways for male and female students to spend more time together in school settings. “We will also meet as a group frequently to keep the issue at the front of our minds,” their statement said.

Ms Contos said the meeting had made her optimistic. “It was a really surreal experience to be in a room with people in such positions of power,” she said. “You can’t tackle these issues in 45 minutes … I hope to continue working with them.”

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