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The Protection of School Communities Act: Expansion of Protection

The Educational and Training Reform Amendment (Protection of School Communities) Act 2021, a response to occupational violence and aggression to school staff, amends the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 (Principal Act). 

The Principal Act is amended to provide for orders with the corresponding civil penalties that protect the school staff and its community from harmful behavior of parents and adults who show threatening or aggressive conduct.

The Principal Act is further amended to extend the definition of harm as including physical or mental harm.

Immediate school community safety orders may be resorted to by an authorized person when there is imminent harm until the normal ongoing school community safety order process may be undertaken. Authorized persons include the principal, the Secretary if its a Government school, and the proprietor of the school or if not available, the person authorized by the Secretary if its a non-Government school. Ongoing school community safety orders may be resorted to by authorized persons to prohibit a person from posing an unacceptable risk of harm at any school-related place.  However, these orders cannot apply to a person under 18, a staff member, or student of the school.  

The Act may be said to be in violation of Freedom of Expression because it authorizes a person to make an order prohibiting a person from communicating with specified school staff, excluding a person from school-related placed.  Such order can be revoked provided that a person apologizes or retracts a particular statement.  The Act, through its allowance for an ongoing order to be made if a person has engaged in vexatious communication, may inhibit a person's capacity to express. 

Despite the abovementioned restrictions, it still cannot be said that the freedom of expression is violated because the restriction are the means necessary to protect the rights of the others.  One of the procedural safeguards to ensure reasonableness of the  restrictions on individual expressions is having the individual make a case for why the order should be made or revoked.  Before an order is made, there is also a submission which should be made upon an authorized person who shall consider the vulnerability of the person and the least restrictive alternatives. 

As to freedom of movement, which may be limited by the exercise of the powers to make immediate and ongoing orders, the safeguard for such restriction lies on its reasonableness.  The limit on freedom of movement envisioned in the Act is appropriately circumscribed because orders, in pursuance of procedural fairness, may only be made when its satisfies one of the relevant grounds for making an order. 

The Act's interference with the right to privacy where an order prohibits a person from contacting staff members, correspondence on a school-run social media page, or when private information is provided in making of orders, is lawful and not arbitrary. 

The rights of families and children is limited because of the Act's interference with the ability of family members subject to immediate or ongoing orders to attend school events.  This is still in the best interests of children and families by improving the ability of the school to handle harmful conduct in the school community. 

As to the right to equality, the discrimination involved in imposing orders on the basis of behavior that is a symptom or manifestation of a disability, is reasonable and justifiable.  This is for the purpose of creating a safe environment for the wider school community. 

The Act provides that ongoing orders should have internal and external review processes and that penalties may only be imposed by the Magistrates' Court so that the Act does not go beyond what is necessary to achieve its purpose.  The Minister may make guidelines with respect to the enforcement of the orders, alternative arrangements, and the processes for making submissions and reviewing decisions to make school community safety orders.  These Guidelines should be published on the Internet site of the Department and its amendments must be published in the Government Gazette.

The Act is overall aimed to address the inadequacy of existing legislative schemes in dealing with violence and aggression from parents, carers, and other adults in schools by expanding the spectrum of protection which could be provided for the school community. 

 

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