For any principal, leading a culture of transparency and integrity is critical in avoiding serious scandals that can put their school’s name on the front pages of newspapers.
In February, St Kevin’s College Headmaster, Stephen Russell, resigned following a broadcast by ABC’s 4Corners program that detailed allegations of a culture of coverup at the Toorak private school. The school’s acting head was stood down the next day following an investigation into allegations of her own conduct.
While most school leaders understand the implications of covering up serious allegations, it is not always the case that schools are equipped with the right systems and policies to handle reports of misconduct.
Prevention is better than cure
Your Call – Australia’s leading independent provider of whistleblowing programs – works with a number of educational institutions to help develop whistleblowing policies and disclosure pathways, and to embed ‘speak up’ cultures among students and staff.
Nathan Luker, Your Call’s CEO, has expert knowledge of schools’ duty of care to their students and staff. He says that in today’s high-risk and complex education sector, it is incumbent on schools to have a whistleblowing policy in place.
“Recent events at in the education sector are a timely reminder of what can happen when a robust policy, and subsequent procedures, are lacking or not properly acted on,” Luker told The Educator.
“On the other hand, when a comprehensive whistleblowing policy is in place – as well as the necessary procedures and training to support it – reports of misconduct can set off an immediate chain of events that ensure the complainant is supported and their privacy protected”.
Luker said this includes undertaking the investigation, removing immediate threats and contacting the appropriate authorities, as well as fulfilling mandatory reporting.
Beware of conflicting motives
A complex situation that can arise when navigating allegations of misconduct is that staff can experience false and/or unfair reporting.
Luker pointed to the “conflicting priorities and motives” of the many different groups that schools have a duty of care towards – namely parents, students and teachers.
“Schools’ whistleblowing or speak up programs need to be rigorous enough to ensure that all complaints are heard and appropriately handled, but also that students and staff don’t fall victim to false reporting which may arise because of personal grievances,” he explained.
“Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all response that schools can roll out”.
The key to getting whistleblower programs right, says Luker, is to make sure that the reporting policy or initiative is accompanied by practical, detailed and compliant procedures that are developed in consultation with all groups and external advisors.
“These procedures need to account for penalties for false reporting and procedural fairness,” he said.
“They also need to work alongside any adjacent policies such as the Child Safety Act”.
A robust policy can avoid a crisis
Luker pointed out that when schools don’t create speak up cultures, individuals, including students, teachers, contractors, and parents, don’t feel safe or heard reporting misconduct.
“They may fear that speaking up means that they will be negatively targeted, or that they will be ignored. Therefore, they’re more likely to not say anything, which can have devastating consequences,” he said.
In 2018, the Human Rights Commission reported that 40% of workplace sexual harassment incidents were witnessed by at least one person, but in the majority of cases (69%), the witness did not intervene.
Luker said that when schools develop cultures of trust where students and teachers alike are encouraged to speak up, bystanders will come forward and harmful behaviour can be addressed.
“If cultivated over the long term, these programs can act as a preventative to wrongdoing,” he said.
‘A trauma-informed approach’
Luker said a trauma-informed approach means the whole school community – including teachers, principals, administrative and other staff – is educated to recognise and respond in an empathetic and consistent way to children and young people who have experienced trauma.
“This approach can be formalised in policy, but it also needs to be supported with training, tools, resources and a commitment to building a trust culture in the school,” Luker said.
Luker said schools must take all allegations of misconduct seriously and protect and support students so that they feel safe and can recover from being a victim or a bystander.
“Offering ongoing support in the form of counselling is also critical, as is referring to external agencies when needed,” he said.