Education ministry’s poor call on sex case

The education ministry's decision not to investigate a teacher sex case in Marlborough means the victim children and parents have been short-changed, argues Victoria University of Wellington's Michael Macaulay

Over the weekend, it was reported the Ministry of Education has ruled out any further investigations into a Marlborough college after a woman teacher there sexually abused two under-aged boys. The rationale was simple: police had investigated and the case was being dealt with. Nothing more to see here.

Except there is so much more. Cases such as this frequently involve multiple victims – with the teacher here alleged to have targeted many other students – and they frequently emerge from an institutional backdrop that has effectively enabled such behaviour.

This is often through poor processes and a lack of safeguards. Sometimes it can be through warning signs being missed. It can even be through leadership being unable or unwilling to respond accordingly, whether through incompetence or sheer moral cowardice. Too often, we see organisational reputation prioritised over victims’ wellbeing.

We don’t know if any of the above are applicable at a Marlborough college. And the Ministry’s decision means we won’t. It’s a poor decision.

We do not need an inquest to cast blame. But we do need to know how and why these things happened so we can learn and use them for prevention in the future. Parents need to know for their own sense of care and psychological safety. Most importantly, students need to know for their own protection.

Sadly, the Ministry of Education’s response is depressingly familiar in terms of safeguarding members of the public against sexual abuse from those in the public sector. There is literally no information on how prevalent this is, nor what can be done about it. It’s time to bring some light and truth onto the situation.

On Monday, a petition was received into Parliament seeking to discover how the State Services Commission addresses sexual harm to members of the public caused by public servants. The petition was crafted by Carrie Buckmaster, a board member of MOSAIC, which works with male survivors of sexual abuse and trauma. Survivors like the boys involved at the Marlborough college.

The petition also asks Parliament to consider responses: whether or not there should be a national body to drive evidence-based improvements and responses. At the very least, it asks for greater transparency and honesty - the transparency that is sadly blocked by the Ministry of Education’s decision not to investigate further. We need to have a more caring approach to survivors and those who support them.

In fact, care is the one thing parents in Marlborough are crying out for, with one quoted as saying the abused children “were there under the school’s care. Just because they could give consent doesn’t mean it was okay. The Ministry should care about this, the school has a duty of care”.

As research and common experience show, organisational responses to this kind of allegation are not geared towards the care of the victim. They are far more process-driven and while in many respects this is understandable it does not lend itself to a feeling of safety and compassion. And it is not just related to such horrendous cases as sexual abuse, but is the general trend towards all areas of misconduct.

Our own research, conducted across New Zealand and Australia, surveyed more than 17,000 people and showed perceived lack of care is a major reason people do not come forward.

The top five reasons for not reporting are all based around a perceived lack of care, which brings forward a lack of trust. This may be care about the reporter’s protection (they fear either that they won’t be protected or their identity kept anonymous or that there will be reprisals against them) or trust around the process (a lack of trust in outcomes or in the people working on the report).

The Ministry of Education’s decision exacerbates both these concerns. Its focus on legal proceedings suggests a lack of care in the human victims at the heart of the case and the conditions that led to their abuse. The lack of further investigation will almost inevitably create greater mistrust in both the process and the agencies involved.

It’s not too late to do right by the children and the parents affected by this case. Hopefully the decision not to investigate will be reconsidered and hopefully in the future we can all have a more transparent and truthful discussion about such abuses.

Professor Michael Macaulay’s research specialty is integrity, ethics and anti-corruption.

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