Education and Training Reform Amendment (Protection of School Communities) Bill 2021 Second Reading

8 Jun 2021

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I rise to speak to the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Protection of School Communities) Bill 2021. This bill amends the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 in an effort to address the risks of occupational violence and aggression directed towards school staff from adult members of the school community, including parents and carers of students. The bill will empower an authorised person—I think it has been cited that this would be a school principal—to issue a school community safety order if they have reasonable grounds to believe that a person poses an unacceptable risk of harm; poses an unacceptable risk of serious disruption to the operation of the school; poses an unacceptable risk of interfering with the wellbeing, safety or education of students; has behaved in a manner that is disorderly, offensive, abusive, intimidating or threatening to a member of the school community; or has engaged in vexatious communications in relation to a staff member.

It does this by introducing school community safety orders to parents, carers or other people who engage in such behaviour. That could either be immediate, for 14 days, or ongoing, for up to a year. It provides for penalties, in the case of breaching the orders, of up to $10 000. It provides for the orders to impose requirements on the way parents, carers or other adult members of the school community interact with the school or school community and actions they should undertake as part of those orders. It also provides the ability for the orders to be subject to an internal review and then an external review at VCAT if the person does not agree with the outcome.

No doubt this bill has appeared, as has been pointed out by other members, because of a minority of people within our school communities and some of the unacceptable and appalling conduct that occurs, directed towards our principals, teachers and support staff at our schools. It comes also from the Protective Schools Ministerial Taskforce Statement: Recommendations for the Minister for Education on Preventing and Reducing Violence and Aggression at Schools, which was produced in 2019. Now, this task force made 12 recommendations, and this bill arises partially from the fourth recommendation, that the minister give consideration to:

the benefits and risks of legislative change that enables harsher penalties for threatening or aggressive conduct towards school staff …

What I would like to see as well is if the government could update the house in terms of just what is the status of the other recommendations that have been set out by this task force, especially those relating to building the capabilities of our workforce to prevent and de-escalate violent and aggressive behaviours. The recommendations include strengthening statewide access to professional learning and coaching opportunities for teachers and education support staff to build skills in trauma-informed education strategies; engaging with the Victorian Institute of Teaching and the Deans of Education Committee to ensure pre-service training includes a greater focus on behaviour support and relationship building; and strengthening professional learning and coaching opportunities to build the capacity of school principals and leaders to drive positive changes to school climate and behaviour support.

The success of the government’s approach to preventing and reducing violence and aggression in schools will not be how often the powers in this bill are actually used but how few times these powers are actually needed. So, given this, it would be very useful, I think, to understand just which of these recommendations have been successfully implemented. That would certainly help to reduce the need for these orders in the first place, because, as has been pointed out by Parents Victoria, banning parents or carers removes the person and might solve an individual situation, but it might not necessarily resolve the underlying problem.

Certainly there must be a sustained and multifaceted approach to violence in schools where school administration, staff, parents, the school community all have a role to play. The task force recommended upskilling school leaders and teachers on how to best deal with conflict, and that really does need to be a key plank of the government’s response to these matters. As I said, the test of the government’s approach will not be how often it is used but to what extent it does not have to be used by putting in place the sorts of measures that were actually recommended by the task force. So more must be done to support school communities, develop strong relationships and ensure there are effective mediation or dispute-resolution processes in place. The Greens will be supporting this bill in this chamber, and we will give it further consideration when it is debated in the other place.

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