Against the backdrop of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse, it is essential that school principals take the time to review the obligations they and their staff have to reduce the risk of child abuse (including physical, sexual and verbal abuse) at school. This is particularly important as the obligations of schools and their personnel move from simply being a “duty of care” issue to a statutory obligation.

In Victoria for instance:

  • a principal, school teacher or nurse must disclose to Child Protection a reasonable belief that child abuse has occurred (or may occur); and
  • any adult at the school must disclose to Victoria Police a reasonable belief that an adult has sexually abused a child under the age of 16.

Failure to comply with these obligations is a criminal offence.

Similar reporting obligations exist in other States and Territories, and an individual’s obligations with respect to child abuse may go even further. Using Victoria again as an example, a new criminal offence was introduced on 1 July 2015 requiring people in authority such as school principals to take reasonable steps to reduce or remove the risk of sexual abuse of a child by an adult associated with their organisation.

While these obligations are imposed on the individual rather than the school, it is essential that a school principal can demonstrate that they have done everything reasonably practicable to reduce the risk of child abuse at their school. This includes demonstrating not only that the school will properly act on child abuse allegations brought to the school’s attention, but also that the school actively engages with its staff to ensure that they are also aware of and complying with their personal obligations. 

Failure to manage the risk of child abuse not only endangers the health and safety of a school’s students, but can also expose a school (and the principal personally) to reputational damage, legal action and the potential loss of accreditation.

Ben Tallboys of Russell Kennedy regularly works with school principals in managing these difficult issues and recommends that principals:

  • obtain qualified advice about the legal obligations imposed on each of the school, the principal and specific school personnel to report and reduce the risk of suspected child abuse;
  • ensure that school personnel understand their own obligations to act on a suspicion that child abuse has occurred (or may occur), including their personal obligations to report such concerns to the appropriate authorities and the school; and
  • adopt school policies clearly setting out what the school will do when it becomes aware of a concern that a student has been subjected, or may be subjected, to child abuse.