49 LETTERS FROM FRUSTRATED AND ANGRY PARENTS SENT TO DECS (WHYALLA)
Following the second meeting in one week in a bid to resolve parental complaints at the Coober Pedy Area School, Member for Giles, Lyn Breuer MP has called for a ministerial enquiry into an ongoing, inflammatory situation at the school.
The second, an advertised public meeting was held on Thursday 12 November with Coober Pedy Area School parents and students and included members from the greater Coober Pedy community.
Thursday night’s meeting was the second meeting attended by Ms Breuer within of a week, after parents threatened a walkout if student suspensions and communication issues between school and parents weren’t resolved.
Parents pushed for a resolution during the second meeting, however Ms Breuer asked for more time to conduct an investigation. After the meeting a group of parents said if it wasn’t resolved satisfactorily, they would consider boycotting the school until it was.
Parents said the unrest had been going on for two years with children being suspended for reasons often beyond their control and for things as intangible as “body language”. Parents feel the tone at the school is causing stress amongst families and children, stating that many families have left the town, leaving the school with approximately 200 student. Parents say that the turnover in staff many of whom had actually chosen to teach at Coober Pedy appears to be due to what they described as unrealistic demands being placed on the students.
Throughout the evening, the meeting drew a crowd of around 160 – 200 concerned parents, residents and included a strong representation from the business sector of the town, many of whom were past parents and students and had become concerned by the amount of growing complaints, with long-term families choosing to relocate to other areas.
As a result of Ms Breuer’s efforts, staff from the Department of Education Adelaide will travel to Coober Pedy during next week to address community concerns in relation to parental allegations and also look into how departmental policies are being implemented at the school.
During the community meeting on Thursday night, local resident, Mr. Patrick Larkin said that they had relocated their own teenage daughter to Whyalla for schooling which is a 600 kilometre distance from Coober Pedy. This decision was not taken hastily but as a result of futile communication efforts. Mr. Larkin spoke at length of various problems experienced in the general community and also problems that effected the Umoona community residents and their children, highlighting a growing stress factor amongst families and their children.
Chairman of Umoona Community Council, Mr. George Cooley spoke on behalf of the indigenous students and related that many children were refusing to attend school as they felt intimidated and unhappy. It was related that students had been suspended or put on detentions for a situation that was not within their control. Students who were relying on a school bus service have been disadvantaged by problems with funding not being available to obtain a driver for the school bus.
Community members rally together in the mornings to collect children and take them to the school. As a result timing does not always coincide with the 8.30 deadline. Mr. Cooley pointed out that the indigenous community did not need the education department to teach them about their own culture. Umoona programs and families provided appropriate cultural education for their children with the majority of families having strong cultural connections intact. The indigenous community comprises at least 50% of the town population. He said they are not opposed to government schooling in addition to their own educational programs.
Parent and community member, Gwenda Forman spoke saying that parents in discussing detentions, said some parents had wanted to take an advocate to meetings involving their children. She said, “parents are upset that advocates were often denied a presence or a voice at these meetings.” “How can some of the people be expected to enrol their children if they are denied an advocate”? asked Ms Forman.
A sole parent raised that parental access visits sometimes clashed with school times and as a result caused friction with the school. With no flexibility this situation can cause inconvenience with regard to the distance travelled in order to achieve quality time for a child with their father.
Another community member spoke privately saying that it was equally important that children had appropriate and predictable access to their father. Parents again, commenting privately agreed that respecting parental contact is vital, particularly whilst children are very young and their self-esteem and confidence is developing.
It was also raised by a member that attempts to discuss various issues regarding her children, as per protocol felt intimidation was projected towards her rather than resulting in appropriate and reasonable communication. Despite parents have their own employment obligations the principal is frequently late for scheduled meetings. Meetings often result in police being called.
Community member Sharyn Baines raised questions as to why the 49 letters written by concerned parents to DECS have not been answered or actioned. Mrs. Baines also outlined the issues raised by 25 parents & community members at a meeting held the previous week with Lyn Breuer. She also asked David Craig of DECS when the last Performance review was undertaken by DECS on senior management at the Coober Pedy Area School.
In response to Mrs Baines question, Mr. Craig explained to the meeting that no such review had been undertaken, but failed to indicate when DECS were likely to carry out a review.
Parents spoke both inside and outside the meeting during breaks. Mothers said some of them had tried to discuss issues with the school appropriately but had been confronted with threats of police attendance. One mother said she had been threatened with legal action, but could not identify the grounds. Other community members said they had been threatened with legal action and were also not aware of any dispute.
There were complaints where parents said they were threatened with legal action prior to attending the community meeting on Thursday night, resulting in some parents saying they were not comfortable in expressing their concerns adequately. One parent quoted that she was threatened by a school staff member with the terms, “you are going to need a lot of money as I’m going to sue you.” Separate individuals repeated that they had receive the same threat.
Rumours were circulating that lawyers would be in attendance watching for evidence of defamation.. Parents said they felt they had been threatened and intimidated simply by a concern that they may attend this community meeting.
Regional DECS representative David Craig of Whyalla also attended the meeting with parents and when questioned about the policy on detentions assured parents that their children would not be suspended if they provided a note or phone.
Parent Ms. Woodward stated that when she knew her children would be brought to school late, she provided a note on each occasion, however punishments were still incurred on the child and that the police had been called on several occasions when discussions were attempted.
Ms Woodward who lives a considerable distance from the town said that such things as a last moment toilet stop for a small child or a car problem could make a difference on any given day and is not the fault of the child.
Another parent who spoke said it was easier to not attend school at all rather than be late, particularly if the children had attended a function the evening before and might turn up for school tired. Despite these occasions are rare it seemed the most stable option for the child.
Coober Pedy’s Mayor, Cr. Steve Baines said on Friday, “I informed DECS of the issues and the discontent back in January of this year and held meetings at both local and regional levels and then with DECS Adelaide to try and resolve some of the issues, but they refused to act. I also suggested to DECS in a letter dated 5th January that they hold an open forum to allow the community to voice their concerns; again they failed to act. This situation should have never been allowed to progress this far and for that I hold DECS responsible”.
During the meeting a mother who has opted to home school her five children said “basically we don’t have a government school. There is no flexibility in a town with the lowest access to services in the state. There are no choices and I would readily encourage the parents to start their own school”.
One mother who couldn’t attend the meeting recorded that she’d become so distressed with constant detentions last year that she gave up her job to be home with her children who were frequently suspended for seemingly petty offence like body language. The mother said one child simply refused go to school for many months in 2008 The mother needed her job to support her children. Other students and parents said that these children didn’t have a problematic history in fact had previously won awards for such things as diligence and fine behaviour and had always been keen students.
Another person spoke stating that she had wanted to take a suspended child to the library to do schoolwork but was told the child was also banned from the library. It was pointed out that Coober Pedy has a public library where any tourist without a name tag or ID can freely enter and access services without permission from the school. The speaker said she had been concerned that once a child was suspended they were at risk of going home alone or simply roaming the streets.
A school student (name withheld) complained to the meeting about staff dress code, stating that young teenagers who were experiencing physical development were distracted and appalled by the choice of attire by certain of the staff in comparison to that which was expected of the students. The teenager said that inconsistency in standards did not provide a role model for students. David Craig from DECS defended this by stating that there is no dress code requirement for staff.
A student (name withheld) who said they had been dropped off at school at 8am was then put on detention at 8.30 for being late. The student said that this was not negotiable despite others who had been with her prior to 8.30am. Her mother spoke privately and expressed strong concerns of the statistics in remote areas of suicides amongst teenagers.
Darryl Borrett commented after the meeting that a number of people have resigned from school council this year already. John Kruse, community member, said that he had no children, and said that the parents needed the strength of a union as without a balanced school council, the council itself lacked teeth in implementing amicable policies.
A father who spoke privately said he was great advocate of the indigenous students and felt it should be explained to parents or students why there are separate activities and dress codes which give the appearance of cultural divisions where there otherwise wouldn’t be any. A simple understanding of this would be beneficial all around instead of allowing the appearance of separate standards which often created unnecessary confusion and resentment. A similar point was also raised by another parent.
One mother spoke about attending a meeting at the school regarding her child’s alleged conduct. The mother felt violated to find those who confronted her had her child’s medical records in their possession and that three different versions of her child’s conduct were presented to her. The mother said, “it’s a small community and education for our children is just not happening. Our children are our concern”
Parents said their children related to them that they are frequently told that their parents have no power in the school. An 11-year-old student was allegedly distressed by having to give an account of a playground incident to the police at the local police station without parents being notified or present.
Annual year 12 Formal.
Concerns were put forward by a parent regarding the overseeing of the annual year 12 Formal. “Traditionally the year 11 and 12 students work together in conjunction with a year 12 teacher or school counsellor, said the parent. “Outgoing students pay tribute to those they feel have been instrumental in their progress throughout their school career by inviting those friends to their end of school career formal. The students raise their own funds for their formal and make their own preparation as young adults on the threshold of career transition.
“These students”, said the parent, “are the last of the YAC group, (Youth Advisory Council) which has recently become defunct in the town and have consistently been involved in community activities such as the Welcome to Coober Pedy sign, fundraising and building the skatepark, supporting their fellow students over the two years with fundraising and attendance at previous formals and countless other volunteer activities. This year now that it’s their turn, there is no help forthcoming, so as parents we have organised a function for these students”.
Another parent addressed David Craig (DECS) asking what would happen to the funds that the current year 12 students raised for their formal. David Craig said that the money would be held for the next Year 12 students. Members at the meeting expressed their disapproval.
March 11, this year saw the tragic drowning of Donna Dunstan a former Coober Pedy Area School student, in the Coober Pedy swimming pool. Donna Dunstan lost her life when she drowned whilst swimming in the town pool, located in the school grounds.
Donna left behind her own small child who would become the third generation family member to attend the school. Donna an accomplished artist was a wonderful mother and daughter and maintained strong friendships within the town.
It was apparent at the meeting that the wider community including those with children were unanimous in their support of memorial plaque being placed appropriately for family and friends and dedicated to Donna Dunstan a past student of the school and much-loved community member.
Mrs.Yoka Dunstan a past parent of the school addressed the meeting in support of current parents, contributing her own experience with seemingly inflexible school policies and communication difficulties. During the past eight month the Dunstan family has not only had to deal with the loss of their daughter but the time has been consumed dealing with a debacle over where to place a simple memorial. On Friday this debacle took another course. Mrs. Dunstan told the meeting: ‘I was outside the Miner’s Store in Coober Pedy today, handing out Lyn Breuer’s notices regarding the meeting scheduled at the United Club in which Ms Breuer had travelled over 600 kilometres to address concerns of parents of the Coober Pedy community”.
Mrs Dunstan continued saying, “The principal of the school approached me outside the Miners Store where I was speaking with local resident and deputy mayor, Mike Maylin. Ms Burtenshaw (school principal) asked me for copies of the notices to give to her staff at the school. I handed her some notices and she asked for some more. After taking more flyers, Ms Burtenshaw then tore the flyers up and threw them on the ground and told me that I was a Hillbilly and an uneducated Redneck. Mrs Dunstan said,”we only requested a simple memorial for our daughter”. [Mrs. Dunstan also related this account on ABC radio on Friday to Keiren Wier].
After Mrs Dunstan addressed the meeting, Mrs.Robin Rapaic a business owner and former parent spoke in support of the community spirit prevalent in the town, reminding those at the meeting that it was the residents who wore burden of cost on their private water accounts to absorb the cost of the water volume required for the swimming pool located at the school. It remains this way today.
The above is part of a record taken at the community meeting and may be updated and is subject to ammendments.
The principal of the Coober Pedy Area School, Ms Sue Burtenshaw has indicated that a response may be forthcoming.
Categories: COOBER PEDY News & Events