Education

School brings in expert after year of battles

In February, an Auckland boy didn't eat his lunch – what followed has seen a family and school community face a year of battles and heartache. Laura Walters reports on a series of unfortunate events at Helensville Primary School.

Auckland’s Helensville Primary School and the Cunliffe family have been tied up in disputes for most of the year, which has included investigations by Oranga Tamariki, police, the Ombudsman and the Ministry of Education.

Nine months after Eli Cunliffe's parents - Rachel and Regan - began battling with the school’s principal, Deborah Heasman and the board of trustees, with no resolution in sight, the board has brought in an expert to try put an end to the upheaval.

David Munro, who has 25 years’ experience on school boards and a background in industrial relations, has been co-opted to the board in what seems to be a last-ditch effort to clear things between the school and the family. Teachers have also been given a direct channel to Ministry of Education regional education manager Grant Malins to help support them through the strange ordeal.

Along the way, staff have left, a long-time board member has resigned, and in August Regan and Rachel’s son Eli left Helensville School based on professional advice.

Some staff have taken promotions elsewhere, and one former teacher said it was sad to leave the school after many years, but she was enjoying her new position.

But someone close to the school – who asked not to be named – said the mood at the school was “not great right now”. Newsroom understands more than a dozen staff have left the school since November 2016.

Meanwhile, no-one is talking, other than Munro, with queries to Heasman and the board chair Daniel Makin directed back to the co-opted board member.

Ministry of Education sector enablement and support deputy secretary Katrina Casey said since being contacted by the Cunliffes in April, the ministry had been working closely with the board, the principal, and the New Zealand School Trustees Association (NZSTA) to make sure the school had “appropriate supports in place to investigate and address their concerns”.

The ministry had also been working with the Cunliffes to ensure their concerns had been heard by the board, Casey said.

Munro was co-opted with the responsibility for communication and resolving the Cunliffes’ current complaint.

“We have confidence that the Helensville School Board of Trustees, supported by the New Zealand School Trustees Association will reach resolution with the Cunliffes.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Office of the Ombudsman confirmed they had received a complaint relating to the Helensville board. The spokesman would not say anything further as the complaint was being assessed.

Earlier in the year, the Cunliffes’ issues were documented on right-wing blog site Whale Oil. Regan Cunliffe has brokered ad sales for the website. He also spoke to mainstream news sites Stuff and The New Zealand Herald.

Now the Cunliffes are refusing to comment, due to the ongoing investigations.

But a series of letters and emails to Helensville staff, as well as the blog posts and media reports from earlier in the year, lay out the series of unfortunate events.

The initial incident

In February, Regan Cunliffe noticed his son Eli hadn’t eaten his lunch, when he picked him up from school.

Cunliffe says he told Eli he would not be allowed afternoon tea, because he didn’t eat his lunch.

Another parent witnessed Eli become upset and allegedly accused Cunliffe of child abuse. The man, whose name has been kept out of media and public correspondence released by the Cunliffes, then complained to Oranga Tamariki.

Cunliffe provided Oranga Tamariki with a statement, Eli was interviewed, and the case was closed. However, the Cunliffes then complained to police about the man. Heasman was also made aware of the altercation.

School camp

In March, both Cunliffe and the other man involved in the incident put their names forward to be parent helpers for the school camp at the start of May.

Cunliffe said he told the principal he would withdraw himself from camp if the other man put his name forward “to prevent any opportunity for unnecessary conflict for the school”.

But after it became clear Eli was afraid of the other man involved – following the carpark incident - the Cunliffes asked the other man be removed as a parent helper.

There were a number of conversations and emails between the Cunliffes and Heasman, some of which included Eli, where the school said the man would still be going, but gave assurances Eli would be safe.

That did not satisfy the Cunliffes, who escalated the issue to the board. In the end, Eli did not go to camp.

This led to the Cunliffes submitting OIA requests to Helensville, and other schools, inquiring about child protection policies.

The results showed Helensville didn’t have an official child protection policy. They also found 73 percent of New Zealand’s 2545 schools have child protection policies as required under the Vulnerable Children Act 2014.

The school is currently developing a policy.

Munro said this was something positive to come out of the affair.

“They did a pretty good job of shaking the bar of the system around child protection policies,” he said.

Failed mediation

In August, Eli left the school on the basis of advice from experts, according to a letter the Cunliffes sent to the school’s staff.

After the initial incident in February, the issues over camp, and complaints from the Cunliffes to the board about Heasman’s handling of the affair, Cunliffe sat in as an observer in a board meeting.

As things continued to escalate, the Cunliffes and the board took part in a formal mediation session on September 24, but were unable to resolve the issues.

On September 25, the board called a staff meeting to talk about the session.

The Cunliffes said they were concerned staff were being told about a confidential mediation session, and contacted the Ministry of Education to report what they believed was a breach of privacy. They also said they planned to contact the Office of the Privacy Commissioner.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner refused to comment.

In a letter to Helensville teachers, the Cunliffes said the ministry told them the staff meeting was called due to threats and concerns for staff safety. The Cunliffes denied ever making any threats. And the ministry’s Casey told Newsroom, she was not aware of “any additional issues or risks associated with the school”.

The letters

In October, the Cunliffes sent a letter to staff thanking teachers for their hard work, and detailing their version of the year’s events.

In a subsequent note to staff, they said the letters were withheld by school management - who opened the letters – and called a staff meeting before handing over the letters.

In the letter, the Cunliffes described the year as “an incredibly difficult one for our family and not one we could ever have imagined”.

They thanked the teachers for their work and care.

The Cunliffes said they chose not to enter the school grounds until their names were “rightly cleared”, adding that “things have gone on for too long and become so crazy”.

“We have only ever wanted to see good come out of this for our school community. We choose to stand up for what we believe in, for what is true and right.”

Newsroom understands there are currently complaints with the Ombudsman, the Ministry of Education and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner.

The investigations regarding the initial incident in February have been closed.

Munro said there was not much he could say at the moment, as he was yet to meet with the Cunliffes. He said there may have been some opportunities to resolve issues early on, “but there’s no point crying over spilt milk”.

He is also tasked with investigating the privacy complaint and dealing with the OIAs. Munro said he hoped to meet with the Cunliffes before the December board of trustees meeting.

“I very much hope I can play a role in helping fix the situation.”

Munro has not been given a deadline.

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