Legalwise has been running the School Law seminars twice a year for a few years now (see http://www.legalwiseseminars.com.au/).
I always enjoy them, and not just because I have been a speaker on several occasions. I always learn something new about the area, and my interest is as much about the questions that get asked as with the answers.
This year the Melbourne seminar is sold out and I think it shows a growing interest in the area of education law. This year’s event will be live tweeted by Marini Mann, a solicitor with TressCox. You can follow her on @marinimann. For those attending, I hope you enjoy it!
The Herald Sun is reporting that Lighthouse Christian College in Keysborough allegedly taught students a novel not on the prescribed VCE reading list, and that the mistake was only discovered during the VCE English exam (see Herald Sun http://bit.ly/s21YYs). The facts are not entirely clear yet, and the school has not made a comment for confidentiality reasons.
This is not the first time a school has allegedly given students incorrect texts for exams, and it probably won’t be the last. It raises the question of whether any school could be liable to students for such a mistake. The answer to the question will depend on lots of factors, but a big consideration is whether the students have suffered any permanent injury or loss as a result of the mistake, and whether that loss can be shown to have been caused by the mistake.
A spokesman for the examining body the VCAA is reported to have said that there were
“established processes for dealing with these situations”.
“It does happen occasionally that schools teach the wrong text to their students,” he said.
“Our processes ensure no students are disadvantaged and that they receive a fair assessment for what they have done.”
Assuming students won’t be disadvantaged, then it is only the question of whether the obvious distress that the students suffered will result in any permanent psychological injury.
The report raises issues of professional negligence and the liklihood of a successful action in Australia.
Way back in 2008 I wrote an article on the topic for the Law Institute Journal. We are no further down the track than we were back then in knowing the answer. (see Law Institute of Victoria – Edukashonal negligence: http://bit.ly/vvnecy)
The principal of Kew Primary School, Kim Dray recently stood aside due to parent concerns about a trial of a new toileting policy at the school. The Age has reported:
The controversy over a toilet trial was affecting parents, staff and students. Dr Dray came under fire from parents after she trialled a ”whole class approach” to toilet breaks, in which the entire class would go to the toilets if one child needed to go.
The principal is reported to have said:
”I am concerned about the effect on our school community and feel an imperative to move this situation forward for the benefit of our students, staff and parents,” she wrote.
”Consequently I have … requested and accepted a temporary reassignment while matters at Kew Primary School are considered.”
The events leading up to the principal’s actions show, on the one hand, how a school can be driven by safety concerns to implement policies that don’t find favour with parent communities. In earlier reports the principle justified the experimental policy on the basis of ensuring the cleanliness of the toilets, but the decision was clearly driven by concerns about unsupervised students visiting the toilets during class times. Dr Dray is reported to have said at the time that
”It’s our priority … to ensure that students are supervised at all times as we exercise our duty of care,”
The apparent parent backlash against the policy was on the basis of reports that the students were experiencing social distress leading to some incontinence problems. Although student safety may be a concern for parents it seems that this time many parents thought the school had gone too far in trying to protect the students from harm.
The Age is reporting that students from several Melbourne schools have set up Facebook gossip pages that vilify students. see http://t.co/T4W3CC2 .
Schools are obviously finding it difficult to deal with these issues, particularly when much of the activity online can’t be identified as having occurred at school. The reported approach of Ivanhoe Girls Grammar School is interesting. Principal Heather Schnagl said ”less than five” students had been disciplined for being involved on the site. But no student had been suspended or expelled.
In a comment that I hear echoed whenever I talk to schools about this issue Heather Schnagl is reported to have said
”One of the biggest challenges … is many parents don’t understand the digital landscape today and … they trust their children rather than maintaining the role of the parent.
”We want to empower our parents to work with us to help students … They are shocked when they are shown what their daughter has posted.”
There are limits to what a school can do to address the behaviour of students online and probably outside of school. It will be interesting to see whether the Victorian government’s new anti-bullying laws will have an impact on the ability of schools to tackle this growing problem.
Unfortunately bullying claims against schools never seem to abate. The Sydney Morning Herald is reporting on another case today
Jazmine Oyston sued her old school, St Patrick’s College at Campbelltown, for negligence, claiming she suffered psychiatric injury after being taunted and abused by other students
It began in 2002 when she was in year 7 and continued until 2005, when her parents withdrew her from the all-girls’ Catholic college
Its a timely reminder of two important issues for schools. One is that bullying needs to be tackled systematically with a well thought out, well implemented and widely publicised bullying policy. The second is that these claims often don’t arise until many years after the alleged events have taken place. Record keeping, especially around this sensitive area should remain a focus for schools.