MS TIERNEY (Western Victoria—Minister for Training and Skills, Minister for Higher Education) (17:34): I thank members for their contributions in this debate so far, and I take this opportunity to address some of the issues raised by members here and of course in the other place.
A number of members have spoken about concerns that have been raised by their constituents regarding adequate protections for parents and students at the school who may be affected by a school community safety order. As noted by many members, the bill expressly provides protections to parents that are not currently included in the existing schemes used by schools, including that parents have the opportunity to make submissions as to why an order should not be issued to them, and the decision-maker will need to take those submissions into account. Also the decision-maker will need to consider any known vulnerabilities, including disabilities or cultural diversities, of the parent and also whether the order is the least restrictive means to deal with the relevant conduct.
The schools will need to put in place access and communication protocols to ensure that the order does not impact on the parent’s ability to participate in the child’s education and access to school and school events. Parents will have the right to internal review and, if not satisfied with that outcome, external review to VCAT.
A number of members also spoke about the need to ensure that the bill is not inappropriately used to silence reasonable and fair criticism of schools and government policies, and I can confirm that it is not intended that this bill will be used to limit or prohibit members of the community from raising genuine and reasonable objections to school-related issues that affect the community as a whole or individual members of the community—for example, development of school land or the preferred strategic vision and direction of the school. However, where a member of the school community raises objections with or about the school in a manner that would satisfy one of the grounds of issuing an immediate or ongoing school community safety order, it would be open to an authorised person to issue an order in respect of that person. Ministerial guidelines will be created to assist decision-makers on matters to be considered in determining whether or not to make a school community safety order and circumstances in which the imposition of an ongoing school community order may be considered reasonably necessary. The guidelines will be clear about the school community safety order scheme not being used by authorised persons as a mechanism to silence or limit any legitimate concerns a member of the community has about government policy so long as those concerns are raised and discussed in a respectful and an appropriate way.
There have been some concerns raised that the bill will add to the principal’s and the school staff’s already high workloads. This is not the case, we believe; in fact it will do the opposite. It is important to note that this bill complements existing and new initiatives in the government school system that aim to prevent parent and carer aggression from occurring in the first place through a communication strategy that will promote positive interactions and model positive examples of parent and staff engagement, as well as raising awareness of the impact of parent and carer aggression on staff, and of course a public-facing policy that clearly articulates expected behaviours that will be promoted through school communication channels. These broader strategies are expected to be effective in reducing the overall number of incidents of inappropriate conduct towards school staff, which will result in a significant reduction in the number of incidents that principals and school leaders currently have to deal with.
For the small number of parents and carers who do not take on board the positive messages and continue to be violent and aggressive, the bill will give schools and the school systems the flexibility to allow persons other than the principal—for example, in government schools, a senior member of the Department of Education and Training—to issue a school community safety order, thereby reducing the workload of principals but also allowing the principal to maintain their existing relationship with the parent or the carer who is the subject of the order.
I understand that Dr Ratnam has circulated amendments that will be dealt with in committee. The first is to clarify that a person who is subject to an order can request that their matter be referred to mediation. There is another one that requires the secretary to approve any ongoing order issued on the grounds of vexatious communication. There is also another one to require a review of an ongoing order at its halfway mark and another one that requires schools to inform the secretary whenever an immediate or ongoing order is made and to provide annual reports to the secretary on orders they have issued. The secretary in turn would report to the minister and then table that report in the Parliament. Just for the record, the government opposes the amendments moved by Dr Ratnam, but we of course will go into this further.
In relation to the issue of mediation, while the government agrees that mediation and alternative dispute resolution are a fundamental and effective strategy for resolving conflicts and disputes in schools, the amendments moved by the member are unnecessary, as the bill already contemplates that decision-makers will first consider whether mediation can be appropriately used to resolve the relevant dispute and, as other previous speakers have said, before issuing an order an authorised person will be required to consider the impact of the order on the subject, such as any disability or vulnerability that may be causing or contributing to their behaviour and whether issuing an order is the least restrictive means available to reduce the likelihood of the harm occurring.
Further, persons who are proposed to be the subject of an order will have the right to make submissions as to why an order should not be issued, which must be considered by the authorised person before a final decision is made to issue the order. The ministerial guidelines are broad enough to include guidance and further requirements around what is considered ‘the least restrictive means’ and will include commentary on mediation when mediation would be more appropriate. Furthermore, it is intended that the ministerial guidelines will include guidance on the circumstances in which a school community safety order should be revoked, including where a person who is the subject of the order and the school have agreed to undertake mediation and resolve the issue prior to the order ceasing to have effect.
There is nothing stopping the person who is subject to the order or the relevant school from proposing mediation at any time before or after an order is issued, and this does not need to be included in the bill. Including these provisions in relation to immediate school community safety orders is unnecessary, the government believes, and in fact would unintentionally affect the operation of the provisions in the bill regarding the automatic review of the immediate order as these orders are only intended to be short term and must be either revoked or replaced by ongoing orders within 14 days. As noted above, mediation for an ongoing order can occur at any time before or after the order has been issued.
There are very limited circumstances in which an immediate school community safety order can be issued as the risk of harm must be imminent—for example, an immediate order may be issued where there is real risk that a staff member would be physically assaulted if a parent was permitted to attend a school event or where a parent interrogates a staff member when they are teaching a class, impacting the education opportunities of students in the class. In these situations mediation would not be appropriate or helpful in mitigating the immediate risk of harm that would occur if an immediate order was not issued.
The department already provides early conflict resolution mechanisms and supports government schools through community liaison officers and funding provisions for mediation and dispute resolution services to schools, and the Independent Office of School Dispute Resolution, which is independent of the department, exists. The independent office assists with resolving escalated complaints through alternative dispute resolution measures and responds to requests from schools for consultation and coaching and on responding to challenging situations that have not yet escalated into formal complaints. The department regularly engages with the independent office and intends to explore opportunities for integration of mediation and alternative dispute resolution measures into the school safety order scheme as planning commences for its implementation.
Finally, it is important to note that the bill also contemplates and encourages mediation to be engaged in to the extent possible after an order has been issued. In particular the bill allows for authorised persons to revoke an order at any time where the person subject to the order has undertaken certain actions specified in the order, such as engaging in mediation.
On vexatious communication, the bill already has a clear definition of ‘vexatious communication’. Further to this, the ministerial guidelines will provide more operational and practical advice on what would be considered unreasonable for the purposes of the definition of ‘vexatious communication’. Training will also be provided to authorised persons to enable them to clearly distinguish between the acceptable ways in which parents and carers can communicate with school staff and unacceptable forms of communicating which may be considered vexatious under the bill.
It is also important to recognise that the proposed scheme will apply to both government schools and non-government schools. It would be inappropriate for the secretary to have the power of approval for non-government schools, as they are not generally subject to the control and direction of the secretary. Further, the government has not consulted on the proposed amendments with the non-government school sector. For government schools, the secretary already has the ability to monitor the use of these powers and ensure that they are not being used inappropriately. If authorised persons in government schools are abusing their powers, the secretary has the ability to respond through the employment relationship that exists, such as by issuing lawful and reasonable directions to that person for disciplinary action if necessary.
That having been said, for government schools the government is exploring whether an authorised person should be required to first seek advice from the department prior to a decision to issue an ongoing school community safety order for the first 12 months of the operation of the scheme. This would apply to orders issued on the grounds of vexatious communications as well and will be imposed by way of departmental policy or in guidelines.
In relation to mandatory reviews, these amendments are unnecessary, we believe, as the bill allows for authorised persons to review, vary or revoke an order at any time where there are appropriate reasons to do so, including where the person subject to the order has undertaken certain actions such as undertaking a respectful relationships course or mediation or any other formal reasons. As soon as practical after an immediate school community safety order is issued the authorised person must review the order and either make a decision to issue an ongoing school safety order or revoke an immediate school safety order. Ongoing school community safety orders can be varied at any time on the authorised person’s own motion or on application by the subject of the order. A variation can vary or revoke existing conditions or exceptions to provide new exceptions. An ongoing order may be revoked at any time while the order is in place if the subject undertakes the actions specified in the order or for any other reason that is acceptable to the authorised person. For example, if a parent’s behaviour improves while the order is in place, an authorised person can revoke the order. The ministerial guidelines will provide further guidance about the circumstances in which an order can be revoked, which will be determined in consultation with stakeholders who were consulted on the bill. This may include where the person has complied with the order and no further incident or inappropriate conduct has occurred.
Further, the proposed amendments put by Dr Ratnam seem to assume that most orders will be in place for 12 months. It is important to note that this is the maximum period, but it is anticipated that the majority of ongoing orders will be in place for a shorter period of time. This is supported by the principle that the school community safety orders can only be issued if they are the least restrictive means available to address the grounds on which the order proposed is made, which means that the duration of the order should be for the minimum amount of time possible. Imposing a review requirement at the halfway mark, including for orders that are in place for, for instance, one month, in all cases adds significant administrative burden to the principals.
The government agrees that reporting mechanisms to monitor how often and in what circumstances school community safety orders are used are very important. The government acknowledges that data collected through the reporting will be important in evaluating the scheme’s effectiveness and identifying the system’s improvements. However, reporting requirements are better detailed in the ministerial guidelines rather than the bill, as further consultation will need to occur with schools and the non-government sector to agree on what those reporting obligations will be and to ensure that they do not impose additional administrative burden on schools unnecessarily. For instance, in government schools there are already incident report systems in place that would capture utilisation of data. (Time expired)