By Kyra Gillespie
Pakenham Secondary College has hit back at damning claims of widespread bullying in its schoolyard on national television news program Sunday Night.
The Channel 7 program, aired on Sunday 5 August, followed the story of three former Pakenham Secondary College students who were involved in schoolyard fights that drew hundreds of views after they were uploaded onto social media.
Year 8 students Sarah Newlassie, Jade Claffey and Mason Gapes and their parents appeared on the program to tell their side of the story.
Channel 7 showed footage of the violence-fuelled altercations.
Despite airing the sides of all three bully victims, little opportunity was given to the school to speak to the claims made on national television.
College principal Ray Squires said no effort was made by the news company to engage with him, with the exception of a 7am ‘ambush’ by the television crew and parents at the school on the first day of term.
The school has since approached the Gazette for the chance to weigh in on the discussion.
“This type of thing is a challenge that all schools face. Our school, like all schools, has processes in place to deal with these kinds of incidences,” principal Ray Squires said.
“Clearly what happened was not acceptable; not here and not in society. And it certainly doesn’t match the school’s values and what we stand for.
“We don’t support bullying and aggressive behaviour. We, like every school, have an engagement and well-being policy which helps to direct the response to any challenges that may exist.”
Mr Squires said the school has implemented a large number of services to educate and empower its students.
“We have a range of programs and services in place including a well-being team, youth resource officers from Pakenham Police and Cardinia Youth Services, incursions from special guest speakers, cyber safety workshops by Digital Thumbprint, bullying prevention programs from Bully Zero, as well as our internal general assembly where we address important issues on the agenda.”
When asked if bullying was a widespread problem in the school, Mr Squires responded with a vehement ‘No.’
“The answer is fairly straight forward – we’ve got 757 kids in the school and we’re talking about three fights and around six kids – so what are the other 750 doing?
“If you’ve put 750 teenagers, (and it doesn’t matter where), if you put 750 teenagers in the same spot for six hours a day, for five days a week, for 40 weeks of the year, and then give them unlimited access to social media, do you think there will be some bullying? The answer is yes.
“The question then is not if there’s bullying, the question is: how effective is the management process in supporting kids and ensuring it doesn’t happen?”
He said the school had a responsibility to prepare its young people for life beyond the schoolyard.
“It’s our job to make a positive difference in young people’s lives and promote respectful, strong relationships among the student body.”
Pakenham mother Charlene Quayle has made a public statement since the Sunday Night story was aired, accusing the program of neglecting important details in their coverage of the issue.
When asked by Sunday Night journalist Angela Cox whether she had bullied anyone, Sarah Newlassie admitted she had ‘accidentally’ slapped another student.
That student was Ms Quayle’s daughter Aly. When she found out that Ms Newlassie was going to be on the show, she contacted the program to share her daughter’s side of the story.
“I told them before it aired and they assured me that they addressed my concerns in the full segment,” Ms Quayle said.
“I watched it with my daughter, thinking there would be some form of remorse, but instead I see her laughing as she says she ‘accidentally’ slapped her.
“When she said that, the world stopped – you can’t walk up to someone and slap them and say it was an accident.”
13-year-old Aly is now in the process of transitioning to home schooling following the bullying she endured.
“I don’t think the report showed all sides of the story and that’s why I have spoken out. A school can only do so much; kids don’t walk into the school ground and instantly become bullies and the teachers are certainly not going around bullying kids.
“There are so many people wearing rose-coloured glasses here and I think more needs to be done by everyone to stop bullying.
“I couldn’t protect my daughter then, but I can now – I am going to be the change she needs to see.”
Members of the school community have since come forward to show their support for the school.
“I have two daughters enrolled in the school, and two kids in primary school who will definitely go on to attend the school,” mother and Pakenham Consolidated teacher Darleen Miles said.
“My girls and I feel the story unfairly shed a negative light on both the school and the community as a whole. I really appreciate everything the school has done for my family and I’m sure there are many other parents who feel the same way who didn’t get to have their say.
“It was really sad to see Ray being ambushed; that man has worked so hard to change the stigma surrounding the school over the years.
“If it wasn’t for the caring staff my eldest wouldn’t even be in school. It really frustrates me when people who know nothing about our community get to choose one side of the story.”
Bass MP Brian Paynter, who was a former student at the school and president of the school council for many years, is calling for an independent review of the school.
“People are losing confidence in the school,” Mr Paynter said.
“This week I am going to ask the Education Minister to commission an independent review into the school to see if there is in fact a problem.
“We want Pakenham Secondary to be a school that parents want to send their children to.”
A spokesperson for The Department of Education said incidences of violence and aggressive behaviour “remain relatively rare.”
“The Department’s policies were followed, police have investigated this incident and the school has taken these allegations very seriously and has taken disciplinary measures,” they said.
Hundreds have taken to social media to share their opinions about the segment.
“How about banning mobile phones from schools?” Margaret Palisi suggested.
“Kids won’t always get it right but it is the constant and consistent messages from home, from school and from society that must bring about change in this area,” another wrote.
“You never hear anything good; it’s always the bad things that get reported. It’s not just at Pakenham Secondary either, it happens everywhere.”