Bill-Education and Training Amendment Bill

MR FREGON (Mount Waverley) (15:24): I rise also to speak on the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Protection of School Communities) Bill 2021. It is very pleasing to see that there seems to be agreeance throughout the whole chamber on this one, which is a good thing. I follow on from the member for Caulfield. We all thank our teachers. They do an amazing job day after day—and our principals no less than any of them. When you think about working in the corporate world, if you were managing a business that had, say, the revenue of one of my high schools with 2000 kids in it, and if you were managing that amount of staff and dealing with regulations that change on a daily basis and the amount of clients, students or parents, if you put that into a corporate sort of box, I think it is fair to say that the average salary for a principal might be a little bit higher.

Our principals and our teachers do not do it for the money; they do it because it is a vocation. This bill is about protecting them, but as the member for Altona said very, very succinctly, it is also about sending signals to our community. It is about saying what is appropriate. Work-related violence is by far the greatest occupational health and safety hazard for Victorian school staff. It is a problem confronted by all educators irrespective of age, gender and years of experience. No-one should be threatened or intimidated at work or at school. In my 30 years in business I do not think I ever saw actual violence in the workplace. I am sure it happens, but I never saw it. I do not even really recall strong verbal abuse in any of the workplaces that I worked at. Again, I am sure it happens. But when I was reading through this bill, preparing for today, I called every principal in the state schools in my area, and the general consensus was that most of them over the last 10 years have probably had an instance or two of either strong abuse or even violence in some cases. Now, as I think everyone has said or would agree, that is completely unacceptable.

It strikes me that as parents we are all very—obviously—emotionally attached to our kids, and if we see them being harmed or we think they are being harmed in some way, we can get emotional. As I think the member for Altona said, obviously no-one is perfect, no matter what side of the blackboard you are on, but it should never get to a point where we are being verbally abusive. It should never get to a point where teachers or principals dread going to their workplace.

Now, in 2019, when La Trobe Uni surveyed Australian teachers on their experience of bullying and harassment in the preceding 12 months, which was 2017 to 2018, the survey found that 57.8 per cent of teachers reported or had experienced at least one incident of bullying and harassment from a parent. Well, that is obviously unacceptable, so this bill strengthens the powers and give specific powers to our principals to deal with this sort of behaviour. And as we know, this behaviour is not limited to just the school. There are measures at the moment where in extreme circumstances orders can be put against people to keep them out of school grounds, but if a school goes on a cross-country run, there are examples—anecdotally, I give you—where aggrieved parents or others have decided to go to those outside-school areas. The orders that we are talking about today will cover that.

There is also, as others have gone to, the ability to have some of these orders for certain social media behaviour. I think I heard from one of the members before the term ‘keyboard warriors’. It is all too easy in our day and age to be yelling and screaming on the internet, and sometimes we go way too far—hopefully I have not, but people do. The internet is a bit like that, because you can just forget for a moment that you are not anonymous—and on some of the social media channels you can be completely anonymous and say whatever you like and think that you are getting away with it. None of that behaviour should be affecting someone’s workplace. None of that behaviour should be affecting someone’s mental health or wellbeing. So it is a good thing that we are dealing with this.

The ACTING SPEAKER (Mr Edbrooke): As reluctant as I am to interrupt the member, the house will pause for cleaning for 30 minutes. We will recommence at 4.00 pm.

Sitting suspended 3.29 pm until 4.01 pm.

Mr FREGON: As I was saying before I was so politely interrupted by the previous Acting Speaker, threats to safety experienced by teachers in the course of their work have been linked to greater staff turnover rates and departures from the profession. The last thing that any state wants is to invest in its teachers only to see them leave the profession because they are chased out by a very, very small part of our society who probably need to get their act together. When we enact legislation like that which we are debating today, we send a message, as I was saying before the break. We send that message to say not only to parents, not only to principals and not only to teachers but also to the students at the school that this sort of bullying is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.

I go back to my own days at high school. In 1981 I was in year 7, and I would have been about 11. Fairhills was not the toughest or roughest school in the area, but it was a slightly different era, for those of you who are as old as me. Year 7 is one of those years—I think the member of Wendouree, being a teacher, would understand.

Ms Addison interjected.

Mr FREGON: No, I was not telling you to sit down, but as a teacher you would understand that when you get to year 7 you get this cohort of kids from grade 6 and nobody really knows the balance of personalities. In my year in year 7, in 1981, we got this explosive mix of personalities. There was one kid in particular who was, unfortunately for him—and I am not going to name names and I am not going to blame anyone because we were all 11 or 12—

A member interjected.

Mr FREGON: No, I am definitely not going to do that. There was one kid who was basically the punching bag for the year.

A member interjected.

Mr FREGON: It was not me, no. At the time, as a young kid, you are just trying to survive and you are trying to get along. But looking back, that had to have shaped that kid for the rest of his life. I remember it standing here 41 years later. Some of the bullying behaviour that I can recall—I would be horrified if it even appeared in one of the schools in our area. I think we have spent the last 40 years at least trying to show from positions of government and from teachers and principals that those sorts of behaviours that I recall are not acceptable. That is work that continues and it is work that will never be finished because there will always be unsavoury aspects of society, but you would hope that at the very least we can have ways of dealing with parents or other adults in the community who have not realised that there are limits to what you can do.

So when we put in laws like this to give our principals the ability to protect themselves, their staff and their school community, we are doing a good thing. That is why I think everyone in this house would agree—and the opposition are with us on this bill, because this is a no-brainer—this is good law. This is good law that will hopefully stay a long time. To all my principals, teachers and school communities: this one is for you, and I commend the bill to the house.