VicSRC presents at Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

What do students think would make schools safer for students? Two members of the VicSRC Executive were recently invited to travel to Sydney to take part in the Schools Roundtable of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and to talk about child-safe and student-centred approaches that empower students in this vital but difficult area.

First published in Connect (216).

VicSRC presents at Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

The Royal Commission
The Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse is the largest Royal Commission in Australia’s history that focuses on the sexual abuse of children in the institutions that are there to care for them.

The Royal Commission is examining what institutions and governments could and should do to better protect children against child sexual abuse in institutional contexts. This includes considering ways to ensure that the types of institutions children commonly engage with have effective mechanisms in place and are subject to appropriate external scrutiny to prevent, identify and appropriately respond to child sexual abuse.

The Commission is using case studies, submissions to its Schools Issues Paper and private sessions with representatives to inform both government and non-government school systems on how to strengthen child protection frameworks and minimise the risks of child sexual abuse. This aims to reduce the fears and barriers that remain for schools and their staff that may prevent them from effectively identifying, reporting and responding to child sexual abuse.

To determine this, the perspectives of those in the school seats is vital. As Executive members of the Victorian SRC, we (Thomas Velican and Liz Chiem) were invited to a Schools Roundtable meeting in Sydney to represent the voices and perspectives of students concerning the matter of child abuse.

Student perspectives
Student perspectives on the research and policy work of the Commission are essential to creating effective solutions, and an environment in which we can hope to solve these issues. Being a student, knowing other students and knowing what makes a school a safer and more enjoyable place, are the key reasons why student perspectives are paramount in any proposed response.

Research has demonstrated that the risk of child sexual abuse decreases where children are informed about boundaries and appropriate behaviour, and are empowered to voice concerns. We appreciated the opportunity to address the Commission and to take part in the discussions. Being flown to Sydney to join the Roundtable was an experience in itself; waking up at 3:30 am for a 6:30 am flight ... and getting on the flight with just a minute to spare was an exciting and stressful way to start the day!

However we were greeted with smiles all around and everyone at the Roundtable was extremely welcoming and eager to hear us contribute to the engaging discussion. Throughout this discussion it became clear why we were there and how we could add our own expertise to help the Commission. It was surprising to us that we were the only students present; but because of that, we recognised the essential value of the perspectives we could offer.

Our ideas
We argued that children and young people often have clear ideas about their own safety and want to be involved in decisions affecting them. In particular, we have heard from students that they believe child safety concerns can be better addressed where adults and institutions work in partnership with them.

Many of the other Roundtable members were shocked to hear that students are rarely, if ever, informed by their schools of how to file a formal complaint. It demonstrated the lack of connection between a student and their education institution; how complaints – if ever made – can often get lost within the system and that it takes much too long for the situation to be addressed.

Furthermore, we suggested that issues of relationships – healthy or otherwise – and how to identify, prevent and respond to them, be incorporated into the Health Education curriculum. Schools, staff, and prevention programs have important roles to play in empowering children and educating them about sexual abuse. Providing them with environments in which they feel safe to disclose is crucial. This child-focused culture is also supported by approaches that see student participation in decision-making as core business, be that through an SRC or through other opportunities within the school, and not as an added-on extra.

We also brought up the importance of having forums for student voice, such as an SRC, in schools. Having an SRC ensures adaptability, student voice and transparency throughout the school. Allowing students to discuss these issues amongst themselves, and to adequately and effectively communicate with the school leadership has numerous benefits but is overall the only way in which transparency and a safe and successful school environment can be established.

We emphasised the importance of transparency within the school community and of maintaining equality in relationships between students and teachers to be able to ensure the best possible environment in schools. Transparency was a key discussion topic both in reference to students having the ability to be transparent on the issues that they may be facing, as well as in reference to a school culture where transparency inspires a safer and happier environment in which students can grow and learn.

What we learnt
The overall experience was itself empowering for us. It was great to see the strong focus on the voices of students in the Roundtable and we are very thankful towards Justice Coate and Commissioner Murray for facilitating the discussion, and allowing us to express our opinions from a student perspective. The experience provided us with another platform to show how vital student voice is and how much change can be created if students are engaged. It was significant to us that the Commission recognised that, when we challenge the expectations of what students can do, the possibilities are limitless – and that students and teachers working in partnership can transform the nature of education.

The experience was eye-opening for many participants to the possibilities for the active role of young people in not only education but in the far wider community. It was a privilege to be able to represent students at this forum and to gain an amazing experience for ourselves.

Next steps
After lunch we were all disappointed to have to go, having so much more to say and hear, but we knew that our contributions were going to make a difference and we were happy to end the day knowing we had done something to make schools and communities better places for students.

The VicSRC is planning to work closely with the Commission. As there are several years left in the Commission’s work, the VicSRC may be fortunate enough to participate in other roundtables, consultations and meetings. The work the Commission is doing is going to benefit students all over Victoria to ensure a better environment for them to learn and grow up in and, in this way, aligns with the vision of the VicSRC about improving the quality of schools and education around the state.

Thomas Velican and Liz Chiem
VicSRC Executives 2015-2016

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