This is an extract from a story by Jewel Topsfield in Today's Sunday Age
Parents and pupils of the Wales St Primary in Thornbury are demanding their principal, Chris Sexton, be reinstated.
The Victorian Education Department has been accused of scapegoating a principal who was abruptly removed from a Melbourne primary school after children were exposed to asbestos.
Many parents at Wales Street Primary in Thornbury are angry the department’s investigation has dragged on for six months and principal Chris Sexton has not been reinstated.
This is despite Victoria’s asbestos regulator, WorkSafe, concluding there is “no basis for investigation” after “comprehensive inquiries” by the Victorian WorkCover Authority and the department.
Many believe the department has mishandled the incident by unfairly blaming Mr Sexton when schools across Victoria are riddled with asbestos.
“Ninety-nine per cent of parents want Chris Sexton back,” says parent Chris Niall. “He cares about education and he cares about kids. People don’t like the fact he was ripped out of the school overnight.”
The health scare occurred after a classroom block at Wales Street Primary, known to contain asbestos, was refurbished over the Christmas holidays. Asbestos consultants issued a clearance certificate in December that verified the area was safe.
However, staff were concerned about the mess when they returned to school in January and asked for a second opinion.
This time asbestos particles were found in dust in the carpet. The asbestos specialist recommended the rooms be closed until the carpet was removed and final clearance given.
But when school began in February, two prep classes used the classrooms for a week, potentially exposing 39 preps and their teachers to the deadly asbestos fibres.
It says an asbestos audit should have been completed before the renovation began, the school’s asbestos register and risk-management plan appeared to be substantially out of date and the classroom was reopened before appropriate clearance had been given.
However, The Age believes there was a miscommunication and Mr Sexton was unaware of the asbestos expert's warning. He is understood to be devastated by what occurred and has told friends: “This is something I will have to live with for the rest of my life.”
The department released a statement in February saying health experts had advised the risk to the preps and staff was “low”.
But Mr Sexton was immediately removed from the school because, according to department spokesman Simon Craig, it was important he “was able to focus on assisting with the investigation”.
Mr Sexton, who has been principal of Wales Street Primary for seven years, is widely credited with turning the school around.
Leesa-Marie Spencer says Mr Sexton is one of the reasons she chose Wales Street Primary. Although shocked her prep daughter may have been exposed to asbestos, Ms Spencer does not blame Mr Sexton. "An old building has asbestos – I can't see that is his fault."
She says Mr Sexton was removed without sufficient explanation. "I was not informed of the asbestos directly, I just read the newsletter and saw a different principal's name. I was shaking I was so worried, I didn't know what was happening."
Last year audits revealed that two-thirds of Victoria’s 1531 public schools contained asbestos and legal action was taken against the department for putting several schools at risk. It has acknowledged wrong-doing and signed an “enforceable undertaking” with the state’s workplace authority promising to improve.
Victorian Principals Association president Gabrielle Leigh said asbestos obligations were unrealistic for schools and leaders. “There needs to be a resourced support person provided by the Education Department in each school to take responsibility. It should not be the job of the principal who is the educational leader.”
Local Labor MP Fiona Richardson says the whole episode at Wales Street Primary raises more questions than it answers.
“Attempts to scapegoat the principal have only made things worse. Department representatives have employed every heavy-handed tactic in the book.”
The department’s Mr Craig said the investigation had taken six months because it was complex and involved parallel inquiries with the Victorian WorkCover Authority. The department's later email to said Judith Benney would continue as acting principal for the rest of 2014 as "continuity is in the best interest of the students and the school community".
The burden of keeping Occupational Health and Safety documentation is onerous. (try doing it in a one teacher school where there is no scope to delegate a very time consuming job. The completion of online OHS professional learning took 5 hours to complete alone)
Nobody should be surprised by DEECDs lack of transparency and communication breakdowns. (The parents should have been kept informed at all times about what is going on) They've never been particularly good at that but the massive reduction of staff must have an impact. My Regional office is like a Wild West ghost town.
The VPA's solution is totally impractacle and you would wonder why they would suggest it. As usual they have a 'one size fits all mentality' like DEECD. What happens in small schools? Many of which with the age of old buildings are riddled with asbestos.
Asbestos if left alone is safe but if there are any potential risks to its stability it should be removed and individual schools and school leaders should not be responsible for that. it is too big of a job and to serious a problem. Maybe DEECD needs an 'asbestos flying squad' to deal with asbestos emergencies in schools? I am a bit puzzled that the principal in this story is being hauled over the coals if asbestos auditors had cleared the building. The fault is surely with them. My school has had 3 audits since 2000 and the most recent audit this year 'found' asbestos not reported in the 2 previous audits ( in the door of our fire proof safe!) Audits are not infallible.
DEECDs online OHS training is insufficient. There is no doubt in my mind that this 'training' simply allows them to say 'we've provided the training and it's not our fault if they didn't do it or didn't do it properly'! Many principals and teachers are simply not doing it or breezed through it.
The 'caution' stickers that state schools have to plaster over their entrance doors/windows if their buildings have asbestos in them only apply to state schools and not kindergartens, universities or private schools. ( Are they audited? At whose expense are they audited and their asbestos managed? and what is the extent of asbestos in these schools? Surely non government schools like non government businesses have to pay for their own audits and asbestos removal?) This goes to the core of my concern about the lack of transparency in this ongoing problem.It can only get worse as old buildings deteriorate or undergo renovations.
It is a tricky issue and should not be shrouded in mystery, allowed to be used as a political football, have rules apply to some but not others or managed on the cheap.