JUDE BARBACK looks at the collaborative approach between schools, communities, police, CYF, the Ministry and child advocacy organisations to help ensure students are safe at school and at home.
Today I meet “Ayla”. Like her creators, Emma and Tyler, she is 11. She is sporty (“she plays netball and touch,” says Emma); she has blonde hair, she likes wearing Converse trainers. Beside Ayla is “William”, who is nine. Dressed in a vest and shorts, it is clear that William is an athlete, but his creators, Finn, Kobe, and Indevir, inform me that he also likes going to the movies.
Ayla and William are among several ‘buddies’ on display at Te Akau ki Papamoa School. They are due to be couriered off that afternoon to workplaces all around the Bay of Plenty for Buddy Day, where it is hoped they will prompt discussions around child abuse and the responsibility that every adult has to help protect children.
Each ‘buddy’ is a life-size cardboard creation representing a young person. It strikes me that the students seem to have created buddies similar to themselves. In essence, these buddies are representing someone just like them, which is the whole idea – any child could be victim to abuse.
Child abuse is one of those subjects that no one wants to think about, let alone discuss. Yet the statistics continue to alarm, the horrific stories keep emerging – and they’re just the ones we know about. Child Youth and Family’s figures show there were more than 21,000 confirmed cases of child abuse in 2012; that’s approximately 60 every day.
There is a tendency to want to shield children from such realities, but in doing so, there is the risk of missing an opportunity to help a child who is experiencing some form of abuse or neglect.
‘Buddy Day’ – essentially an annual child abuse awareness day – is an initiative by national child advocacy organisation Child Matters, designed to get people talking about child abuse.
“Most people think child abuse is something that happens to ‘other people’, and there’s nothing they can do to stop it. But there is something every adult can do. We can speak up for children; children can’t prevent child abuse, adults can,” says Anthea Simcock, chief executive of Child Matters.
“Child abuse directly impacts student achievement. Just as we know that when children come to school hungry, they are unable to learn, we also know that when they come to school having witnessed family violence, been abused or neglected, their ability to learn is also impaired.
“Educating the adult population about where they can go if they suspect abuse and empowering them to speak up if they do is part of the solution to preventing child abuse. Raising awareness is also very important. That’s what Buddy Day is all about.”
Last year’s Buddy Day was the third of its kind, with thousands of businesses and school children taking part throughout Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, and Wellington. Around 1074 buddies were created and distributed to influential business people, celebrities, politicians, iwi, community leaders, social advocates, and members of the public.
Tackling sensitive topics in the classroom
While the idea is to spark up conversations among adults, Buddy Day also provides the perfect opportunity for participating classrooms to talk about child abuse.
It is not an easy subject for teachers to broach, not least because it encroaches onto home territory. Teachers may have no idea, or worse, an inkling, about the volatility of a student’s home environment.
However, Jonelle Crone, a Year 5/6 teacher at Te Akau ki Papamoa School, says addressing such topics is done with involvement from parents and the wider community.
Crone says the Buddy Day initiative tied in really well with the Keeping Ourselves Safe unit, which addresses, among other things, making sensible decisions, taking about things to trusted adults, knowing your personal information, and cyber safety.
“There is a lot of PD (professional development) about keeping ourselves safe. The police provide guidance and we meet with the parents. There is also a book with all the activities that we follow, so you can’t really go wrong,” says Crone.
The unit also delves into more sensitive topics such as being touched inappropriately.
“At first, there is a little bit of giggling and silliness, but once we talk about how this response is just because we are nervous and embarrassed about it, the students quickly get over this,” says Crone.
Crone says the discussions on abuse look at how we identify it, and what to do if you suspect it. In a sense, it is priming these kids to become trusted and watchful adults who are alert to the realities of child abuse.
“It’s a really sensitive topic. But it’s good to be able to address it later in the year when the kids know and trust me and each other. It is a safe environment for sharing and the kids really open up.”
Ministry’s response to ERO’s report
Student safety and wellbeing at school has been on the radar recently after an Education Review Office report found that the practices of one-third of schools meant they were unlikely to recognise situations when students could be at risk from staff and respond appropriately.
“Our findings highlight that although all trustees and school leaders agreed that student safety is paramount, some schools need to increase their commitment to students’ safety when employing and managing staff,” says ERO’s manager evaluation services, Stephanie Greaney.
In response to ERO’s report, the Ministry of Education’s head of sector enablement and support, Katrina Casey, says that although a lot of work has been under way since ERO carried out the survey a year ago, the Ministry is taking further action to tighten procedures and ensure student safety.
“Now that ERO has released the report, we are writing to all schools clarifying guidance on their procedures for recruiting and managing staff and offering any additional support required.
“The powers of the body that registers and undertakes vetting procedures have been strengthened, and there is a new code of conduct for the education profession and automatic referral of serious misconduct to its disciplinary tribunal.
“Teachers receive advice on what makes a child vulnerable and how they can be helped, as part of their initial training.
“A bill before Parliament also creates a consistent approach to vetting and screening across the children’s workforce by supporting organisations working with children to actively consider risks and ensure those working with them do not present an unacceptable risk,” says Casey.
The Ministry also liaises closely with police and CYF on the issue of child safety.
It is certainly an issue that requires a collaborative approach. Child Matters will also be hosting workshops at the 2014 NZSTA Conference to provide more in-depth information around the role of schools and Boards of Trustees in keeping children safe in school.
If these initiatives – the Ministry’s steps to tighten procedures to ensure student safety, the Child Matters workshops, the Buddy Day programme, the Keeping Ourselves Safe modules – can help protect even a small number of vulnerable children, then it will all be worth it.