Sun. May 26th, 2024

Content warning: this story includes descriptions of bullying, racism, and mental health issues, and some readers may find the content distressing.

One of the more tricky subjects to navigate when trying to understand what the issues are at Armidale Secondary College is why some people think the school is great, others think it has some issues but is generally ok, and others have the shocking horror stories we are hearing in this series.

Armidale has always been a cliquey place, and it’s simply not reasonable to expect that those influences would stop at the school gates. Smashing together two previously highly competitive schools, each with their own clearly defined culture and sense of belonging, was never going to go smoothly either.

But to what extent does the cliquiness and identity contribute to the problems – or protect kids from them?

Targets of retribution

We made the decision early on to use pseudonyms for all the parents and students due to almost all of them fearing retribution for speaking out. A number of people we spoke to asked us not to publish their stories after we completed their interview and were about to publish the story because they were so fearful of that retribution, or had been intimidated in to silence. And some have had retribution since their story was published, in the form of intense gaslighting ‘that’s not what happened’ or other heavy handed responses, or more subtle social isolation and bullying.

One parent, we’ll call him Simon, says this targeting and retribution is common, and has gone so far as to lodge formal complaints with the police and the Department of Education about the targeting of his son.

Simon says the school reported his son to the police multiple times for things he didn’t do. He claims the allegations were made up, and no action was taken by the police against his son.

“It was a big story, basically, to send the police to my place and try and scare me over my kid being a hassle,” Simon said.

“If you’re in the shit books, you’re targeted. And if you’re in the good books, it helps.”

“It helps if you’re Aboriginal, it helps if you’re disabled, and it helps if you’re in the teal [selective] class.”

“And it helps if you’re Ezidi because the Sanctuary people will be on the case if they’re treated badly.”

“There is a deliberate program of intimidation, bullying and what have you. They will target you if you in any way upset them or tell they have done something wrong.”

“And the main way they target you is by taking it out on your kids.”

Not Aboriginal, not Ezidi, not white… easy target

Anika – not her real name – migrated to Australia some years ago and English was not her first language. She says there is little support for the children of migrants (other than the supports for the Ezidi kids) and no allowance for their parents who may struggle with the language or are unfamiliar with the schooling system. She is particularly concerned about the harassment at the school and says it is obvious her son is being treated differently.

“Every day he comes home, or when I pick him in the afternoon, he has a story to share.”

“And most of them are because he’s bothered by what he sees, other students going through that and the kind of punishments that they actually get for not actually causing that trouble themselves, but being targeted by other students.”

“Every morning when I drop him, I’m just waiting for the day to be finished. When can I pick him up? And there are times when I have picked him up from school when he has been asking if he could just rush home because he needs to go to the toilet.”

Anika says her son doesn’t use the toilet because he’s afraid of what happens in there.

“It’s going to affect his health too, if he’s going to hold onto it or if he’s going to avoid drinking more water or not eat at school just because he doesn’t want to go to toilet.”

Anika says her son isn’t believed by teachers when he reports issues in the school.

“There’s been incidents where the other students have been throwing stones at other students, and when, you know, students go and complain to the teachers, they come and say, ‘where is it? We can’t see it. So it’s not happening.’ And no action is taken.”

“They tell the students, come and talk to us, and there are some students who are brave enough to do that, but then it just, you know, it goes back to them.”

“It just seems like, you know, if you are a brown skinned person, you are not that heard compared to other students.”

“So you are treated as someone who is a second language speaker. You’re not going to perform better than the others in the school. They are talked down or not heard by some of the teachers.”

“And it’s common to get into trouble for a little thing, compared to another student who would be doing the same thing repeatedly and would get away with a warning. Not just one warning, several warnings and never suspended.”

“Whereas another student who is a second language speaker in that school, if you just do one slight mistake, it could be a split second reaction for that student to react that way, you are going to get suspended. That’s it. There is no conversation, there is no discussion over that matter.

“Because they think that the parents don’t even understand. No one is going to come and complain and talk to them about this.”

“Because the parents, they do not understand English to that level to even explain anything. Which is tough, because there’s a lot of ESL kids there.”

“And if you go and voice out anything, you’ll see the next day that they have done something that has excluded your child from something. So very wrong.”

Anika gave an example just recently where kids who have been in trouble were not allowed to go an excursion about mental health and wellbeing.

“So which students are you taking? The good ones who never speak up, the good ones who just obey whatever you say, because they just want to stay in the system.”

“But the ones who really need the help, the wellbeing, are being excluded, and some of them may have been excluded, or suspended, or punished, just because they are brown skinned.”

Anika is bitterly disappointed because she loves Armidale, but feels the only option to ensure her son is safe is to move.

“I don’t think that anything can be fixed in the school because I see that most of the parents are also not coming out and speaking up or standing up for their kids.”

“We have had great support from the Armadale community; it’s a lovely place.”

“It’s just heartbreaking, I think, to see how others are treated here by just that school as opposed to the rest of the community in Armadale.”

“So I do not have a choice. There is no other public school in Armidale. While we love the place, we have great friends in the community, but you know, I do not want to continue sending my son to the same school for another few years.”

Toxic targeting affects mental health of kids and parents

Simon expressed concern for some of the wonderful teachers who have been good to his son and subjected to bullying and harassment from the administration, just as he and his son have experienced. However, he says that it is hard to know what is intentional, and what is just poor leadership and toxic culture at the school.

“It gets very hard to know what is targeted personal attacks, and what is just sheer, you know, even if the school was running tickety boo, this probably would have happened.”

“Because the incidents and mismanagement are so constant, it just doesn’t stop.”

Anika says the issues have affected the mental health of her son and herself.

“He’s deeply affected by [what’s going on at the school]. He’s thinking he’s going to be the next one. And he is a very quiet child, so he wouldn’t speak up or do anything. but he is afraid that one day he’s going to be in that situation where he is targeted or he reacts and does something because he no longer can control himself.

“I kick myself every morning when I drop him to school because I know he’s not going to a safe environment.”

“I can’t sleep in the night. I keep thinking about where I should move.”

This story is part of a series the New England Times is working on about Armidale Secondary College. 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. 

Email newsdesk@netimes.com.au or DM our Facebook page if you’d like to tell your story. The names of all parents and children in personal stories is being changed to protect the children involved.

Some of the content in these stories is distressing.  If you or anyone you know needs help, please contact: