Education Department made little effort to track offending teachers, inquiry hears

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Victim-survivors of child sex abuse in public schools are calling for a full investigation into historic offending after the Education Department admitted there had been little effort to trace the full scope of teachers’ crimes.

Glen Fearnett, a former student of Beaumaris Primary School which harboured four known offenders in the 1960s and 1970s, said it was clear the department had improved its policies in recent times, but there had never been an attempt to properly examine historic child abuse throughout the state school system.

Glen Fearnett says more victim-survivors need the chance to tell their stories.Credit: Penny Stephens

Some victim-survivors have been left feeling silenced by the current Beaumaris Primary School board of inquiry, which is only examining abuse perpetrated by four teachers who worked at Beaumaris and 23 other schools.

Fearnett said while the board of inquiry had offered him some healing, others had not been given that opportunity. He said public acknowledgement of the damage caused by the teachers was an important step in healing.

“When there was silence, the burden was mine and there was no one to share it,” he said. “The moment I was able to share it and put it on record, other people came to share that burden.”

Two senior Education Department staff told the board of inquiry this week that the trail of offending teachers had not been significantly looked at, even in cases where they had long employment histories.

When quizzed by inquiry chair Kathleen Foley, SC, on Friday about the lack of effort to establish the full extent of offending, Education Department secretary Jenny Atta said they had focused on responding “thoroughly and completely” to civil claims as they arose.

She said internal discussions about investigating further had stalled due to the complexity of victim-survivors who may not want to be contacted, ongoing police investigations and legal matters on foot.

“I completely understand the call from victim-survivors for more transparency, and why that is important to them, and the department is genuinely open to how we might better do that,” Atta said.

A 2013 Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Non-Government Organisations did not accept submissions on government schools, while the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2017 focused largely on other organisations.

Education Department secretary Jenny Atta appears at the Beaumaris Primary School board of inquiry on Friday.

Fearnett said he believed the department was still coming to terms with what needed to be done, but the board of inquiry had made it clear it warranted investigation.

“From the evidence that was put forward about the complete lack of policy, procedure, effort and application [surrounding allegations of child sex abuse], it can only be that there needs to be a wider investigation or inquiry into what took place and there needs to be scope for people from other schools who have similar stories to be able to tell them,” he said.

“Some of these people are feeling silenced and not listened to.”

Atta offered an apology on behalf of the department on Friday, acknowledging the “catastrophic failings” of the government school system, compounded by a lack of appropriate action by those in authority.

She said she was aware of calls from victim-survivors not only for an apology but for a commitment to action and would engage with the findings of the board of inquiry to ensure there were effective supports for all victims of historical sexual abuse in government schools.

The inquiry has been told of at least 40 alleged victim-survivors related to Beaumaris Primary School. Education Department deputy secretary David Howes said on Wednesday that there were likely many more.

The final round of hearings, addressing support services and healing, will be held next week.

If you or anyone you know needs support, you can contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).

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