Article: “A modern-day witch-hunt”

by Workers News Online. Editorial Opinion & Analysis, March 21 – April 4, 1997

4 April 1997

ARTHUR miller's play, The Crucible, recently re-created on screen, provides a telling exposure of seventeenth century New England witch-burning. The modus operandi of that witch-hunt - the creation of a climate of suspicion and terror, the promotion of ignorance and fear- was utilised by Miller as a metaphor for the anti-communist "red-baiting" trials orchestrated in the early 1950's by US Senator Eugene McCarthy.

Today the same methods are being revived in New South Wales. The state Labor government, headed by Premier Bob Carr, in conjunction with the media, is targetting the state's schools and their 66,000 school teachers.

Lurid front-page tabloid headlines such as "Teacher purge, 36 sex, abusers' removed". "School sex risk - 106 accused still teaching" and "Still teaching: abuse suspects" have appeared, accompanied by reports that the government has dramatically removed 36 teachers from classrooms and instigated an inquiry, headed by a retired judge, into another 136. All of these teachers have been placed under a cloud of suspicion, yet all have previously been cleared of allegations of "improper conduct of a sexual nature". Not one has been convicted of an offence or found guilty under a departmental charge.

The Carr government has swept aside such legal formalities. Closed files have been re-opened and investigations revived, dating back all the way to the 1970's. The charges range from such vague, minor and easily contrived allegations as "bumping into a female student in a crowded corridor", "commenting on a student's dress, and placing an arm on a girl's arm while demonstrating a skill, to more serious accusations of sexual intercourse.

The Carr government has pronounced sentence first, then ordered an investigation. After announcing that former Supreme Court Judge John Slattery would examine the teachers' files, Carr immediately pre-empted the judge's findings. "There is a core category of teachers in those 106 who should not be in the classrooms," he proclaimed. Slattery was given one week to produce a report.

Not to be outdone, Education Minister John Aquilina cut short a visit to China and flew back the next day. Barely off the plane, he declared that another 30 teachers would be added to the list under investigation. He vowed to enforce a "hard-line" approach. Teachers would be sacked, he stated, regardless of any industrial action.

In at least one case, police were called as a teacher was removed from a school under the glare of a television news crew's lights. The teacher had stood trial last year after being accused of touching several primary school students in an inappropriate manner. He had been acquitted by a jury after evidence that the alleged touching was outside the students' clothing and had occurred in front of many witnesses.

The government and the media are setting about creating a poisonous atmosphere inside the schools. No teacher feels safe from the threat of allegations, no matter how vacuous, contrived or malicious. Already there are reports of teachers committing suicide in the face of trumped-up charges and of others quitting the service rather than endure constant anxiety: Teachers taking leave for any reason, including medical problems, have felt compelled to inform parents that their departure has nothing to do with allegations of sexual misconduct.

Carr and his ministers discovered in the recently concluded NSW royal commission into police corruption a useful tool for creating such a climate. The inquiry was originally set up by the Liberals to clean up the image of the police force. The Labor leaders, then in opposition, backed the establishment of the commission on the proviso that another term of reference be added, relating to paedophilia.

Once it became clear, about a year ago, that police corruption was entrenched at the highest levels, the royal commission abruptly switched focus to paedophilia. Carr and his Attorney-General Jeff Shaw tacked on new terms of reference instructing the commission to examine allegations that government departments and agencies were protecting paedophiles. In the dying days of the royal commission this clause was used to instigate the witch-hunt.

The official agenda

Behind his professed concern for the well-being of students, Carr has bluntly stated his intention to utilise the royal commission's work to accelerate education cost-cutting.

Just a week after launching his "sex offenders" campaign, Carr ordered Aquilina to review the education department: unit by unit" to find means to reduce spending. The Premier asserted that the department's alleged failure to root out sex offenders revealed a bloated administration. "Let the blood flow, let the pips squeak," he said. "The royal commission is jolting public administration." Carr boasted of having already axed 400 jobs in the Department of School Education.

The offensive against teachers is taking place amid the greatest shift in education policy this century. The entire government policy at both state and federal levels is aimed at winding back education spending, withdrawing from the responsibility of providing a universal public school system and placing students and parents in the hands of private, fee-charging providers.

The Howard government's new State Grants (Primary and Secondary Assistance) Act lifts all regulatory restrictions on the size and location of private schools and shifts funds from the state school system to private education every time a pupil transfers to a private school.

Churches and other private bodies are setting up new "low-fee" schools an many suburbs, taking advantage of the legislation's provisions whereby the Commonwealth pays up to 80 percent of the recurrent costs of a student's place. Parents, anxious to provide a decent education for their children, are having to pay between $1,200 and $2,800 per student.

In this context, the Carr government's witch-hunt is calculated to have a definite impact on parents. It has been accompanied by reports highlighting lower TER scores in government schools, severe literacy problems and the introduction of armed guards to combat alleged gang violence. The government is utilising these conditions, created by their own running down of schools, to make parents feel that they have no choice but to transfer their children to private schools.

The NSW Labor leaders made their attitude toward teachers and the public education clear last year when they signed an agreement with the NSW Teachers Federation to slash education spending, including a $55 million direct cut to school budgets, as the price for a so-called wage rise.

The unprecedented transformation in official education policy requires unprecedented measures of enforcement. In particular, any resistance on the part of teachers has to be crushed and students and parents turned against them. That is why the Carr government has taken steps to make its witch-hunting measures a permanent feature of life in government schools.

Within days of his initial announcement, teachers were summoned to school meetings where principals distributed some 50 pages of new procedures for dealing with allegations against teachers and for notifying child abuse. Teachers were told to sign a register acknowledging their receipt of the documents, paving the way for immediate implementation.

The new procedures provide for the most wide-ranging accusations to be brought forward, threatening teachers with suspension from classroom duties and the effective end of their teaching career. The rules define "improper conduct of a sexual nature" as including, but not limited to, matters such as "inappropriate conversations of a sexual nature," "obscene language of a sexual nature," "suggestive remarks or actions," "jokes of a sexual nature," "obscene gestures" and "unwarranted and inappropriate touching".

Allegations can be made orally or in writing by a student, any person acting on behalf of a student, or any person who "is aware" of the alleged improper conduct. Accusations can be made to school principals or to a centralised Case Management Unit.

From now on, no teacher will dare touch a student, even to pat them on the back or reassure them after an incident, for fear of being taken from their classes and hauled before an investigating officer. Every teacher will think twice about disciplining, cautioning or failing a student, for fear of retaliation in the form of concocted accusations.

This regime places teachers under enormous daily stress, sapping their morale and health. It also provides a ready-made recipe for victimisations instigated by principals or school authorities seeking to rid themselves of teachers who, for example, oppose cost-cutting measures.

Together with the "excess" provisions, under which hundreds of NSW teachers have been forcibly transferred this year, the procedures establish a mechanism whereby the government can substantially cut teacher numbers, or replace experienced and more highly-paid teachers with lower-paid junior and casual teachers.

The Carr government is not alone. In Victoria the Kennett government's Teaching Service Order 140 has allowed school authorities to solicit a wide variety of complaints from parents and students against selected teachers. Victimised teachers have been pressured into resignation by false accusations of sexual misconduct. Teachers subjected to TSO 140 have been barred from organising any campaign to defend themselves or even notifying their fellow teachers that disciplinary processes have been initiated.

In both states, the unions have permitted these attacks to proceed. The NSW Teachers Federation has not called a single meeting to oppose Carr's witch-hunt and the ongoing campaign to undermine public education. Teachers are being left to deal with the offensive against them as isolated individuals.

For years the union has systematically blocked any opposition to the mounting attacks on public education, including last year's wages settlement, the widespread use of forced transfers and the introduction of global budgetting to make individual schools responsible for their own finances and fund-raising.

To defend themselves, teachers need a new organisation which takes as its guiding principle the right of all young people to a free, universal, first class publicly-provided education. That is the purpose of the Committee to Defend Public Education, established by the Socialist Equality Party.

Printed by the Socialist Equality Party
PO Box 367, Bankstown, NSW, Australia 2200