Content warning: this story includes descriptions of violence and bullying and some readers may find the content distressing.
The extreme violence at Armidale Secondary College is destroying families and placing huge financial burden on those that cannot afford it, and the catalyst for it all may be cost cutting on a simple toilet lock.
None for Four
Peter – not his real name – is a single dad of four doing his best to provide for his kids and support his ill mother. He believes in hard work and, as a former greens keeper at a local primary school, he is a realist about kids getting in to trouble from time to time.
Peter’s family are none for four: all have been significantly affected by violence at ASC, albeit in different ways. The devastation to his family has pushed them all to the brink.
Of his four children, only one is still at ASC. His two older daughters have dropped out and the youngest has moved to O’Connor. The one who is still there, his son – whom we’ll call Simon – was recently brutally assaulted in a bathroom by a year 11 boy.
Simon was running the school around looking for a toilet that was unlocked. Finally finding a bathroom that was open, he was faced with a bunch of year 7 kids gathered around, kicking the stall door and making jokes.
“Get out of the way, I’m busting,” Simon said to the younger children.
They did so, and he quickly flung open the door to find not a vacant toilet, but an older boy, allegedly masturbating in the stall.
Before Simon could get an apology out, the much larger year 11 boy “whaled on him”, Peter said, repeatedly punching both sides of the younger boy’s face.
As a result of the beating, police and ambulance were called to the school and a lockdown initiated, but Peter was not notified. It is school policy to notify parents in the event of an injury.
“The first I hear of it is when he walks through the door at four o’clock with a police report and an ambulance report in his hand, and his face all beaten up.”
Can’t afford it, but have to find it
Dental x-rays showed that while Simon’s jaw wasn’t broken, his young teeth are out of alignment as a result of the attack. He now needs specialist surgery in Newcastle to break his jaw and reset his teeth.
Each visit to the specialist requires a three day trip, meaning Peter has to leave his daughters in the care of his ill mother, and spend much more money than he can afford. The bills were already tight as he had to stop work to care for his mother and kids, and his youngest daughter – we’ll call her Lisa – is now at O’Connor.
“I said to them she’s not very religious, but if you can put up with that I can find the $76 a week.”
Peter said he felt for those families who really can’t afford that expense.
“They have put a lot of kids who had previous issues together, and there’s no escape,” Peter said.
“Now they don’t have options. Previously people who hated each other, y’know, some could go to Duval, some could go to Armidale High, and they’d sort themselves out.”
“Now they’re all put back together and have nowhere to go.”
Lisa was moved to the local Catholic high school after prolonged and extreme bullying and multiple violent attacks. The bright student has always done well in school, until she went to ASC.
“She’s the brains of the family, had merit awards all the way through at Ben Venue, and would come home complaining about not having teachers,” Peter said of his youngest daughter.
“She’s my little Sheldon.”
“When she first went up to ASC she was still getting awards and that, but after a while she stopped going to class.”
School seemed powerless and kids feel hopeless
Peter says Lisa was just trying to stay out of trouble by avoiding the bullies. And that meant not going to class with the girls who had been attacking her. These attacks were not just mean words: they were physically violent attacks, and the school seemed powerless to do anything about it.
“One time she was strangled by the throat, nothing happened about it,” Peter said.
“I went up to the school for another meeting, and while I was there she was attacked again, punched in the stomach.”
Things came to a head when Lisa was tricked into going downtown to hang out with some other girls, who then cornered her, and beat her up in a gang attack.
“She’s like any kid, she just wanted to make friends,” Peter said.
One of his other daughters is now in a lot of trouble, having taken the matter into her own hands and retaliated against the girl who tricked her little sister.
NSW Police have confirmed a 13 year old girl (the bully) was allegedly assaulted at Armidale Secondary College in June, and as a result of their investigation in to the matter, a 15 year old girl (Peter’s middle daughter) is being dealt with under the Young Offenders Act. The Young Offenders Act is legislation that gives police the capacity to steer kids away from court and in to intervention programs.
“I can’t defend what my daughter did,” Peter said.
“She did the wrong thing, but she never should have been put in the position of thinking that’s what she needed to do to protect her sister.”
“I feel for the teachers, I’m sure they’re really tired and frustrated too.”
“But there was a story coming home with my kids every day of kids being violent,” Peter said.
“They look at me and see Dad can’t fix it, the school won’t do anything, and they just feel hopeless.”
Futures derailed, but still hopeful of getting some spark back
Peter knew there were issues with the merged school very early on.
“My eldest daughter got hit by the merger,” he said.
“I was worried because there was no mandatory school uniform, no mandatory in-class time, and they allowed them to have their mobile phones.” (A mandatory uniform policy has since been implemented, and the Yondr system for locking phones in pouches during the school day was implemented last year, both with mixed results.)
Then his middle daughter went up to ASC, and neither of his older daughters were going to class.
“They were ringing every day, ‘your child’s not at school’.”
“They were at school, they just weren’t in class.”
Peter tried to implement the discipline and structure the school was failing to provide, insisting that his children wore their uniform, attended every class, and applied themselves.
The girls, traumatised by the violence and other issues they were encountering at ASC, did not respond well to Peter’s attempts to get control of the situation and ran away from home for a while. When they came back, they didn’t want to go back to the school, so Peter helped them get jobs at local fast food restaurant.
“It didn’t take much of that before they wanted to go back to school,” he said.
With the help a social worker from TFSS, Peter met with the school and they discussed a plan to support the girls in their return to school.
The girls were not supported.
“They didn’t do any of the things they said they would do,” Peter said.
Both girls are now engaging in the Fit For Work program at PCYC and looking towards an apprenticeship pathway rather than finishing their schooling.
“The Fit For Work program has been wonderful, really excellent,” Peter said.
“My goal right now is just to look after my kids and get the spark get back in their eye.”
“I can just start to see the spark coming back after getting them away from ASC.”
Cost cutting cause of toilet lock issue
The reason that Armidale Secondary College exists, and the once excellent and highly respected institutions of Duval High and Armidale High do not, was always about saving money. While the stories, claims, and counter claims, about maintenance to school buildings and budget restrictions abound – and have always confused locals – there is general agreement that the whole thing was about cutting costs.
Ironically, one small decision to go for something cheaper may be at the heart of the amalgamated school’s violence.
When the new school buildings were being constructed, someone decided to use cheaper, inferior locks on the toilet stall doors and not the standard locks that can be found on public toilets almost anywhere. These inferior locks are the reason why Simon was able to open the door of a toilet that was occupied, resulting in his severe beating.
Andrew Simpson was involved in the merger and the early days of the new school through the P&C and, as the then President of the Armidale City Public School P&C, a member of the Project Reference Group (PRG) that provided detailed input to the new school construction. He says the locks on the toilet doors are not Department of Education standard, and all of the toilet stall doors can be easily popped open by kicking them.
“It didn’t take the kids long before they figured out that you didn’t need to be big and strong, you could just kick the toilet door and it would open,” Mr Simpson said.
What started as something funny for kids to do quickly became a favoured bully’s tool. By kicking open the toilet stall doors bullies could humiliate their victims at their most vulnerable. When some of the victims started reacting and fighting back, they soon figured out it was a guaranteed way to start a fight. And, with the high demand from social media for school fights on video, all the budding content creator needed to do was have a willing kid kick a door and film what happened next.
“What you don’t see on the video beforehand is the kids kicking on the door.”
Mr Simpson says that one little decision has much to answer for.
“If those toilets had approved locks, they wouldn’t be able to kick the doors open.”
“If they couldn’t kick the doors open, there wouldn’t be as many fights.”
While the violence at ASC is not limited to the bathrooms, multiple reports indicate the bathrooms, and in particular the toilet doors being insecure, is central to the epidemic of violence, bullying, drugs, sex, and other issues at the troubled school. Next in our series, we’ll meet another family whose children have both suffered, including a boy who was on the other end of a fight in the toilet started by forcing open the door.
Note: The Department of Education was given a series of questions in relation to the incident involving Simon, including about Peter not being notified, and the toilet door locks. The Department’s media unit did not respond by deadline. If a response is provided, this story will be updated or an additional story published and linked back to this story.
This story is part of a series the New England Times is working on about Armidale Secondary College. As the school’s leadership works on ‘codesigning a new vision’ for the school, reports of violence, bullying, and other issues within the school are not dying down. We want to hear your stories – the good and the bad – whether you’re a student, parent, teacher, or other interested member of the community.
Some of the content in these stories is distressing. If you or anyone you know needs help, please contact:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
- Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636
- Headspace on 1800 650 890