Content warning: this story includes references to violence, bullying, and suicide, and some readers may find the content distressing.
This is article number 15, of what was supposed to be a 4 part series about bullying, on Armidale Secondary College. And we’re not done.
To say we have been utterly overwhelmed by the extreme violence, toxicity, and despair experienced by so many people would be a dramatic understatement. This should never, ever, have happened. I, like most of the Armidale community, had no idea it was happening, and I’m so proud and grateful to all those who have spoken out.
Having vented some, but by no means all, of the hurt and the anger felt by so many, and with the Minister and Department now paying some attention – getting the Secretary on the ground is not a little thing – it feels like the right point to transition from telling personal and painful stories towards analysis. We will keep telling your stories, but we’re going to start digging a little deeper now to understand the causes of the pain.
What is going wrong here? What are all the elements of this complex issue that need to be dealt with? How do we break this down so we can figure out what needs to be changed and how to change it?
There are clear and definite themes emerging from the stories and interviews, some of which are very concerning.
The two strongest themes are the identity and group based social structure and division that is creating gang-like behaviour patterns; and the toxic culture of gaslighting, manipulation and denial that we have experienced ourselves in trying to cover this awful story. These are complex human behaviours that are very difficult to understand for those who are in it. The intensity of the cliques and the related identity and affiliation protect/defend instincts (for example, siblings and friends defending each other, retaliating, and so on) would make a very important psycho-sociological study *cough UNE cough* so we can ensure no school has to endure this again.
Less clear, but becoming apparent when dispassionately analysing all the evidence (and it is extremely hard to step away from the emotional power of these stories) are questions about whether the schools should have been merged at all – and the rationale for doing so has always been questionable – and that there is a problem with the built environment. So both why the fancy super school was built (was this corruption?) and the various issues in the physical buildings, like the toilet locks that don’t work and excessive glass that makes it difficult for kids to learn.
The other theme which has been consistent but lacking in evidence and needs further investigation is to what extent the issues are created by poor leadership or incompetent administration. Many are calling for the head of current Principal Bree Harvey-Bice for reasons from her poor personal choices – like the email that started this series – to inexperience, not being up to the job, or just not listening to parents and students. However, this level of dysfunction cannot solely be the failure of one person. Harvey-Bice herself believes that a school is a reflection of its Principal – or at least, that’s what she posted to LinkedIn – and there is certainly some level of responsibility at her desk.
However, Harvey-Bice’s poor decisions have been enabled, excused, and supported by the NSW Department of Education and its policies. And the issues with the amalgamation that have been known about since at least June of 2021 when teachers walked off the job have not been addressed by the departmental or political leaders. In those two years, the lives and futures of some of our most vulnerable kids have been destroyed, and there does need to be accountability for that.
Cliques, gaslighting, corruption, construction issues, incompetence, system failure.
It’s a heavy list. It’s the kind of list that really only the ABC’s 4 Corners has the resources to properly investigate and report, but this dinky little local news website with no funding will do what we can. The stories will be less frequent than they have been for the last month as these stories are harder to write and take more time, but we’re not stopping until our kids are safe.
As we continue to dig and report on this, there is one subject we are not going to touch: suicide. We have heard that there have been a number of suicide attempts, and at least one of those that was successful was, in part, linked to issues at the school. But the families and individuals dealing with that level of mental health crisis and grief don’t need the triggering headlines, and we don’t need the abuse (although the Department’s media unit is more than happy to dish it out) or accusations that we are using their painful personal stories for clicks. We would only ever tell that story if the people involved and their mental health support team thought it was something they needed to do for their recovery, and we were 100% confident that it would do more good than harm.
We will start to report on issues in other schools as we start to delve into the system failure part of that heavy list. We know about bathrooms being locked in Inverell, we have heard about violence at Guyra, we understand that former ASC students have taken some of their issues to other schools in the area. Tracking the dominoes as they fall is an important part of understanding how much damage has been done here.
We will keep telling people’s personal stories. We still want people to come forward if they want to add their story and their voice to the growing pile – the more voices, the less ‘leaders’ in Sydney can look away. Just email firstname.lastname@example.org or message the Facebook page.
And we’re still very happy to interview people about the good things at the school too. We’ve tried to get them on the record: both the P&C President and School Captain, as well as a number of parents, have nice things to say but declined to be interviewed or asked for their stories not to be published. Which, in and of itself, is just more evidence of the toxic culture of intimidation and manipulation.
Adam Marshall hasn’t responded to our multiple requests for interview, and Education Minister Prue Car bumps all requests for comment back to the Department. We’ll keep asking.
The stories in our Trouble at ASC series so far
Story 1, August 21: Principal belittles students for speaking out about the school in an email to all parents and staff and a video for students.
Story 2, August 23: ASC policy of locking toilets causing mental and physical distress, including one student being humiliated, begging for a key while her menstrual blood dripped on the ground.
Story 3, August 25: Principal Bree Harvey-Bice apologises (sorry you were offended style) for her offensive email.
Story 4, August 27: The first of our really painful personal stories: Peter* tells how all four kids have been affected by violence at ASC. Cost cutting on the toilet locks during construction may be why the toilets are the focal point of violence.
Story 5, August 29: Jack* and Sarah* tell their story of extreme bullying and depression, including an attack in the toilet to make a video that backfired.
Story 6, September 2: we took a break from the awful to provide information people desperately wanted about homeschool as an alternative.
Story 7, September 4: Concerns about kids with disabilities not getting the support they need due to other issues taxing resources.
Story 8, September 6: As we started to notice a trend of kids being encouraged to leave school, Stephanie* came forward with a confronting story about a teacher trying to bully her daughter out of the school for a whole year.
Story 9, September 8: The original poster on Facebook spoke to us in more detail about the issues they deal with every day at school, and how she doesn’t feel safe.
Story 10, September 10: Bridget* tells of her family’s heartbreak, after choosing to move her family to Armidale for a better life and specifically for what was offered at ASC, her family is devastated with her eldest son running away to North Queensland, and her eldest daughter pregnant.
Story 11, September 13: Real concerns that the selective program students, while buffered from the violence, are not getting the education they’re supposed to be.
Story 12, September 13: NSW Department of Education Secretary Murat Dizdar visits the school and dismisses concerns as ‘sensationalist and unhelpful reporting’. Parents call for his resignation.
Story 13, September 16: A child in care that is so unsafe in school she has been sent home, to the suspension centre, and it’s been suggested she go to BackTrack.
Story 14, September 20: Claims of targeting on the basis of identity or as retribution for parents taking up matters with the school.
*All names of parents and students have been changed in an effort to protect our kids.
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.
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