Legal: Teachers have statutory duty to notify suspected sexual abuse

Teachers have a duty to notify appropriate people if they have knowledge or reasonable suspicion of sexual abuse of a student of a school, whether by the general duty of care, an employer instruction or by statute.

The purpose of this article is to advise of some changes made to the third of those alternatives, although it remains important to act in a manner which is consistent with the duty of care and also in accordance with employer instructions.

For about a decade, Section 365 of the Education (General Provisions) Act has imposed on staff members in Queensland state schools an obligation to give notifications, in accordance with the act and the regulation made under the act, when they “reasonably suspect that a (student) has been sexually abused by another person who is an employee of the school”.

This obligation has been widened and now applies where: “…a staff member of a state school reasonably suspects, in the course of the staff member’s employment at the school that …. (a student) … has been sexually abused by another person.”

This is a significant widening of the obligation, as it is now not limited to known or suspected abuse by an employee of the school, but by any person.

The significance is that a staff member of a state school who fails to discharge this obligation can be charged with an offence. A conviction of such an offence would of course be a very serious matter in the context of employer discipline, or teacher registration proceedings.

In relation to principals, an important amendment has been made, which in some circumstances imposes an obligation on principals to give a written report about the abuse to a police officer.

It is beyond the scope of this article to deal with these matters in more detail, but the details are important and you should seek appropriate advice if such circumstances arise.

The act also now contains a completely new provision, Section 365A, which imposes the obligation if the staff member “…reasonably suspects, in the course of the staff member’s employment at the school, that (… a student…) is likely to be sexually abused by another person.”  It appears that teachers cannot be charged with or convicted of an offence under Section 365A, but as the Parliament is imposing the obligation, a failure to comply with it would obviously be very serious in employer discipline or teacher registration contexts.  Again, teachers who believe that this obligation may have been triggered may need to obtain appropriate advice to make sure they comply with their obligations and that the written report they provide meets the requirements of the regulations under the act.

The practical consequences of failure to notify can be tragic. While teachers need to notify to protect themselves, the real motivation should be the possibility of protecting the vulnerable from abuse, which may have life-long consequences.

Andrew Knott

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 117 No 2, 16 March 2012, p29