GUEST BLOG: I know a lovely blogger who works in an area of the government that makes it impossible for them to post this on their own site. I am posting it for them here. This person has insights and coalface experience relevant to the new powers the Queensland government has handed to school principals.
Another day, another shortsighted policy from the LNP Government in Queensland. On Wednesday of this week, The Brisbane Times reported on new legislation that will ultimately hand free rein to state school principals on suspensions and exclusions.
I work in a support capacity with the very students that this legislation will hit the hardest. I see up close, first-hand, every day, the effect that disadvantage has on engagement with, access to and success in education.
Presumption of innocence?
The new legislation purports to allow students to be suspended or excluded when facing serous criminal charges. Students can already be suspended or excluded from all state schools if convicted of a serious criminal offence such as rape, drug trafficking, attempted murder and the like. If convicted.
But the LNP now removes the right of the presumption of innocence until proven guilty by allowing for suspension or exclusion while the charges are being dealt with.
I have seen many a young person face charges and the system of juvenile court baffles me. Some charges take up to a year, certainly most take many months to be dealt with. Now principals can remove the young person from their schools, perhaps for months at a time, for possibly no reason. Even if guilty, is it sensible to further disadvantage a young offender by removing from them their right to education? Oh that’s right, students will be provided with an educational program during their suspension. Right. This Government shows yet again their complete lack of understanding of the needs of a young person from a desperately low socio-economic background.
I speak from a small sample size of experience, and an anecdotal one at that, but every young person I know (and there are a few) who have faced the courts are so unbelievably disadvantaged it is a disgrace to our sense of a fair go. Honestly, you’d be shocked. They are often in the care of the state (that means they have been abused and/or neglected). If they do live with their parent/s, mum and/or dad probably don’t work, if mum and/or dad do work they are in a very low-paying job with no power over their work or conditions and probably work 12 hours per day. This means there is no parent at home to look after them while they are home on suspension. Mum and/or dad may be trying, but probably have a criminal, mental health, domestic violence or poverty background, and may even be barely educated themselves.
Who exactly do they think is going to assist, support and guide this ‘educational program at home’? The barely literate child? The never-at-home parents?
Lack of understanding of the issue
The whole thing shows a staggering lack of understanding of how to deal with these kids. The out of sight out of mind approach to these kids will also, over time, de-skill the workforce. Who is going to develop expertise in dealing with these kids if they are all out running the streets on suspension? The police, that’s who. Certainly not education professionals.
Under the new rules, principals will also be able to apply disciplinary action for behaviour outside the school gate. I can tell you, schools and principals are already under pressure from angry parents wanting schools to do something when their children get up to no good outside the school gates. This isn’t going to end well. This will ramp up that pressure on school principals and drag them into community feuds they have no business getting involved in. It will create huge problems in evidence gathering and will force principals to act as local community judges. The line of school managed, family managed and even police managed issues will blur even more than it already has.
Getting to the nitty gritty
The wording, as quoted in the Brisbane Times piece, gives principals the power to suspend or exclude a student based on outside of school behaviour, “provided the conduct adversely affects, or is likely to adversely affect, other students or the good order and management of the school or where the student’s attendance at the school poses an unacceptable risk to the safety or wellbeing of other students or staff”. I accept that principals have a duty of care to all their students and staff. I myself have advocated that a particular student be suspended or excluded because of unacceptable risk of harm to others. This wording however, creates a dangerous grey area.
I have worked with students who are petty criminals and vandals outside of school but toe the line as best they can in the classroom. They actually want to be at school. This is too much power and not enough fair process. What evidence is required for these decisions?
What’s best for the kids?
The Education Minister claims that the rationale for these new laws is that “principals understood their school community and knew what was best for it and should be given the powers to act accordingly.” That may be so in many cases, but there are also some scarily incompetent, bigoted and immature principals out there who will gladly seize the opportunity to sweep these pesky little brats out of their schools. This legislation leaves the fate of young people subjectively in the hands of a single person.
Surely, this is why we have a robust legal system? So that adult alleged offenders are granted due process? Why should young people be denied the same?
What about their rights?
A slight but sneaky change to the length of a ‘short term’ suspension doesn’t mean much other than stripping parents of the right to appeal and removing from schools the need to be fair. Time limits for lunch and after school detentions are removed also. So a young person could feasibly be detained in class for the entire day without a break, and for an undefined period of time after school. And on Saturday. Since when did young people not have the simple right of a lunch break? Can you imagine the outrage if that right were denied to the adult workforce?
This is not just bad policy. It’s not based on any evidence. There are enough studies out there that show excessively punitive treatment of young people leads to anti-social behavioural outcomes. Education is a major protective factor in breaking out of the cycle of poverty and petty crime. This LNP thought bubble pays no attention to the reasons behind the behaviour; rather it thinks that the problem is solved by throwing the problem out onto the streets.
Of course, not every young offender is from disadvantage. I admit my view is skewed because of the demographic and specialist field of education support in which I work. But there exactly, is my point. It is those kids, the ones already miles behind in social capital that will be so damaged by this new draconian approach to school and out of school discipline. In the long term, this legislation creates a generation of young disadvantaged people who, dabbling in criminal behaviour, desperately needed education and we denied it them.
We are adding young people to the welfare system, the juvenile justice system, the mental health care system. We are supposed to teach them. Instead, we just add to the long list of people and systems who gave up on them.