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Friday, May 31, 2024

New taskforce aims to make ACT public schools safer

A new taskforce to review safety in public schools redoubles efforts to support staff and students despite the challenges of the pandemic, the ACT Government promises.

“The last two years have been challenging for everybody, and school communities have not been immune from the pressures of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and a nationwide teacher shortage,” ACT education minister Yvette Berry said.

Classes are overcrowded, and teachers are overworked and under-resourced, the Australian Education Union (ACT Branch) has said for more than a year. The effect on discipline, worsened by the disruption of the virus, has been disastrous. More than 1,600 incidents of violence were reported at ACT schools in the first quarter of this year, the ABC reported. The most notorious was Calwell High School, described as a “war zone”, where students injured teachers and threw principals across desks; WorkSafe ACT called the situation “untenable”, and banned students from being on school premises for some weeks. Ms Berry herself faced a no confidence motion from the Canberra Liberals, who accused her of incompetence.

Now, the government has announced it will establish the Safe@School Taskforce to ensure ACT public schools remain safe and supportive places.

“The taskforce will aim to create a positive change towards a stronger safety culture in our schools, and improve the management of incidents with a shift in focus from response to prevention,” a government spokesperson said.

The government says the taskforce will lead a system-wide transformation that will improve student and staff safety and wellbeing.

Guided by the Safe and Supportive Schools policy, it will ensure that schools are free from bullying, harassment, discrimination, and violence.

To do so, it will implement the Positive Behaviours for Learning framework, described as an international, evidence-based whole school process, in all ACT public schools.

“Any incident of violence in ACT public schools is unacceptable,” a government spokesperson said. “When incidents occur, they are treated seriously, and our priority is the safety and wellbeing of everyone involved.

“However, we know when it comes to bullying and violence, schools experience the same challenges as other parts of society.”

New systems, processes, policy documentation, and training will create greater consistency in both understanding and implementation of safety systems in schools.

First, the Taskforce will review the public school system to provide a snapshot of how safety processes are operating. These reviews will inform improved safety across all ACT public schools, and ensure the ACT Education Directorate meets its ongoing legislative obligations related to the Work Health and Safety Act 2011.

Support staff will be trained to promote a safety culture and respond to incidents.

Curriculum resources will be developed to support teachers in planning and workload management.

This work builds on the government’s Occupational Violence Management Plan (2017), and continued investment in preventing and responding to violence in schools since then.

An advisory group will support the taskforce. This group will comprise representatives from the AEU ACT, the ACT Council of Parents’ and Citizens’ Associations, the ACT Principals’ Association, ACT Policing, and work health and safety experts from the Chief Minister, Treasury and Economic Development Directorate.

The AEU ACT welcomed the creation of the taskforce, and looked forward to continuing to work with the Education Directorate, P&C, and others to ensure that schools were safe, branch secretary Patrick Judge said.

“The creation of this taskforce demonstrates that the ACT government has listened to teachers, school staff, and their union, and is acknowledging the systemic causes of safety issues.

“It also shows that the actions of AEU members at Calwell High School have succeeded in ensuring safer schools not only for themselves, but across the whole of the ACT. It is the bravery and professionalism of school staff in demanding that their concerns be addressed that has led to the establishment of this taskforce.

“Teachers and school staff know that the number one factor impacting their safety at work is under-resourcing, including the ongoing teacher shortage. We hope that the establishment of this taskforce will demonstrate to existing staff and to those considering a career in education that ACT Public Schools take safety seriously.

“Staff in ACT Public Schools are proud to have led the nation in advocating for safer schools for staff and students. As a profession, we set a high standard for safety in our schools, and we work together to find solutions wherever that standard is not being met.

“Our workplace violence campaign has helped to change a culture of acceptance and underreporting of workplace violence. We will continue to act to ensure that violence in schools is not accepted and its causes are addressed,” Mr Judge said.

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