HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [5.27 pm]: I rise because, once again, I wish to speak about the findings of the State Coroner’s inquest into the deaths of 13 Aboriginal children and young people in the Kimberley. Tonight, I specifically want to talk about the coroner’s findings with regard to education. As I have said previously, and as outlined in the report, engagement in education has been clearly identified in studies as a protective factor against suicide. Canadian research also highlights the importance of some local control over education, and that was part of the evidence that was provided to the coroner by Professor Pat Dodson. Therefore, it is not surprising that disengagement from education was a feature of the lives of all the 13 children and young people whose deaths were investigated by the coroner. To quote directly from the coroner’s report —

Very sadly, practically all of the children and young persons whose deaths have been investigated in this Inquest had poor school attendance rates, consequential poor academic outcomes and most of them displayed behavioural problems at school.

There are already significant challenges to delivering education services in the Kimberley, including the transience of many Aboriginal families and children, and the challenge of teaching children who may have experienced significant trauma and may also suffer from foetal alcohol spectrum disorder developmental issues and a range of other health and mental health issues. There is also, of course, the challenge of trying to get kids to school when their parents, aunties, uncles and grandparents may have a very negative view of school as a result of their own schooling experiences. There are also other challenges associated with the remoteness of a location, including access to services and the retention of staff. Of course, these challenges are not new, but we are yet to develop effective strategies to mitigate them. As a result, there has been little change in rates of school attendance and achievement for the Kimberley. Quoting again from the coroner’s report —

... school attendance rates among Aboriginal compulsory year students in the Kimberley Region have remained stable at 67%. The gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal compulsory year attendance rates over this period has also been stable at about 25%.

Attendance is obviously vital for achievement. As identified by the Auditor General in his investigation of this issue, even missing one day of school has a detrimental impact on school performance. But non-attendance has broader implications than just affecting school achievement. As we know, school is often a place, and often the only place, of safety, and it also can be an important source, or even the only source, of a healthy meal. As the coroner notes, school can also serve as the first place where a child in need of help is identified. As such, it can play an important part in providing and facilitating access to that help.

The purpose of the coroner’s work was to determine what we should have done differently and what we have to do differently into the future, and to make sure that we apply that information so that we achieve systemic changes to prevent future deaths. The coroner made it clear in her report that behaviour was identified as an issue for a number of these children and young people. She heard evidence that children with a history of trauma, as had been characterised by the short lives of many of these children and young people, may adopt problematic behaviours. It is therefore not surprising that so many of them had been suspended from school on numerous occasions. Clearly, as I have said previously in this place, it is not okay for students to behave inappropriately or violently at school. However, it is equally clear that strategies that serve to further disengage vulnerable children from education ultimately will be counterproductive and may in fact increase the risk of self-harm or, as has been evidenced in the coroner’s report, death.

In 2014, the WA Ombudsman released an excellent report entitled “Investigation into ways that State government departments and authorities can prevent or reduce suicide by young people”. It was an evidence-based and thorough analysis of the characteristics and interaction with government agencies of 36 young people who had died by suicide. As with the coroner’s more recent report, many of the young people whose deaths were the subject of the Ombudsman’s investigation had been suspended from school, again often on multiple occasions. Among the Ombudsman’s findings was that the Department of Education could assist in preventing or reducing suicide by more effectively responding to persistent non-attendance and behaviour management problems. The Ombudsman recommended that the Department of Education’s behaviour management policy —

  • recognise that ongoing behavioural difficulties by a student resulting in multiple suspensions and exclusions may be due to cumulative harm resulting from child maltreatment;
  • recognise that these students may be at heightened risk of suicide;
  • set out what additional steps will be taken in response to this risk, including working in coordination with other State government departments and authorities; and
  • provide that, where this association is identified, it will be appropriately taken into account.

Members need to remember that, in far too many instances, behaviour at school needs to be seen as a warning sign and an opportunity to intervene. It should not be leapt on as a reason to exclude. Each of these children and young people whose lives were so tragically cut short fell through a gap. In fact, reading through the report, they fell through multiple gaps. We missed so many opportunities to intervene in their lives in a positive way. We missed multiple opportunities to prevent their deaths—to prevent their suicides. Instead, they were suspended from school or they just stopped going. This is absolutely not okay. We have to get better at this.

I am looking forward to the government’s response to the coroner’s report, but, unfortunately, I am not feeling particularly optimistic. I am certainly not at all encouraged by the work that the government has done in this space to date. For example, I think the decision to abolish 36 Aboriginal education regional consultant manager and coordinator positions within Aboriginal education teams across the state was a mistake. It was one of the first decisions made. I have already raised concerns in this place this week about the minister’s school violence policy, which I believe runs the risk of exposing already vulnerable children who act out at school to more risk, rather than addressing their needs. This report is really important. It is about saving lives and recognising that we have children who are in an extraordinary amount of pain, and take the ultimate, most terrible of steps. We have too many suicides and too many reports, and we have not seen the action that is absolutely necessary. We need to take this as seriously as possible, and I want to see some change in this space.


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