By Kym Amor, Foundation Principal, Foxwell State Secondary College. Originally published by Queensland Association of State School Principals (QASSP).
The morning of 19 February 2020 is a day I will never forget. Sitting in my office with my school’s Guidance Officer, I was in the process of submitting a heartbreaking ‘Report of Harm’ when my mobile rang. On the other end of the phone I could hear the horror in the voice of someone I love dearly telling me that the lives of three precious, innocent babies had been taken and that their mother, our close friend, was clinging to life. As I drove towards the hospital that day, I knew that our lives would never be the same again. As we now know, on that day, Hannah Clarke’s former husband brutally murdered Hannah, their children Aaliyah, Laianah, and Trey and caused unimaginable damage to so many people who have been deeply affected by this tragic and unnecessary loss of innocent lives. As my brave niece, Nikki Brooks stated at the public vigil, ‘There was no excuse, there could never be an excuse, no buts’.
This horror is not an isolated, one-off event in Australia. We live in a country where one woman per week and one man per month are murdered by a current or ex-partner and one in three women will experience violence in their lifetime. The significant increase of violence in our homes is unacceptable and we can no longer look the other way. Our safety as a community, and the safety of the children we care for on a daily basis, is an illusion. The statistics are confronting. As educators we are in the unique and powerful position to influence every child, every home and every community. As educators our role is multi-faceted and can therefore feel overwhelming, and as a principal I know the demands on us are increasingly complex. But we must act if we are to safeguard our future as a nation and safeguard the lives of our children.
Our country is in pain. Our families and communities are being destroyed and our children are being murdered or left with scars that may never heal. Family and domestic violence is destroying the very fabric of Australia. As a nation we are doing some soul-searching and we are seeking answers and solutions. We are scared and feel helpless. But we don’t have to feel hopeless.
What can we do? We need to change our definitions of what constitutes success and we need to commit to behavioural change strategies in each and every one of our schools and classrooms. We need to explicitly and implicitly teach students from Prep about respectful relationships and how to treat each other with respect and kindness. What is the point of improving literacy standards if the standards of how we treat each other are declining? What is the point of improving numeracy standards if our children are being abused or killed? We need to educate students about how to identify when relationships are not safe and we need to stand beside them as they expose and confront these dangerous behaviours. We need to commit to embedding a culture of respect and kindness in our schools, regularly communicating messages to our students, staff and parents about how and why we need to stop inappropriate patterns of behaviour and abuse. We need to confront the behaviour we see in students, parents and staff as they happen. It is our business and it is our responsibility. Yes, it is our burden however it is also our privilege. If not you, who?
Words matter! Words matter in the schoolyard, they matter in our classrooms, they matter in our staff rooms, and they matter in the hearts, heads and homes of our most vulnerable people, our children. Words carried through generational abuse and violence can infiltrate our school gates and we need to be wise enough and brave enough to address them, challenge them and stop them. These words are feeding the culture of violence that is killing our futures.
Little boys and girls need to be supported to explore their emotions and not be silenced by gender stereotypes of ‘boys don’t cry’, ‘be a strong little man’, ‘that’s a girl’s job’ or ‘he only hits you because he likes you’. Too many children quieten their inner voice, the one that is telling them that something isn’t right. So they say nothing, as they don’t have the strength, confidence or trust to listen to that voice and act on it. As educators we must educate our children on how to identify their emotions and how to process and regulate them in appropriate ways – not to silence them, bottle them up or to act out in anger. Hurt children become angry and abusive adults.
We have to stop normalising sexist attitudes and behaviours right from Prep. This is where we can act and make a difference – today. We don’t have to wait for a policy or program. We have to model appropriate behaviours and attitudes and call out behaviours that are inappropriate. If we don’t, we trivialise these behaviours of violence and discrimination, and we are impacting the safety of the women, children and men in all of our homes.
I call on every educational leader across Queensland and Australia to address the aggressive behaviours, address the hurtful comments, and call out the coercive control. We must look out for and act on the smallest signs of abuse and aggression, even in the parents within our school community. We can no longer say, ‘It’s not our business, it’s not our job’. Address any aggressive behaviour by a father, mother, or grandparent in your school grounds towards their child, their partner, another parent or you (in a way that protects your safety and wellbeing of course!). Model respect, model control of your emotions and don’t ever be the one who perpetuates the cycles of aggression, misuse of power, violence or abuse. If you see something, say something. If you aren’t actively standing up for what is right, you are part of the problem.
Children do not deserve violence in their homes, on their streets or in their schools and classrooms. By modelling and educating our students about respectful relationships we are not only addressing domestic and family violence, we are also addressing bullying (including cyber bullying), discrimination in all its forms, gender inequity and youth violence, including the work we have already done to drive home the message that ‘one punch can kill’. Instead of tackling all of these complex issues in isolation, let’s look to strategies and initiatives that address them all. If you do not have a school policy to actively promote respectful relationships, you must commit to doing this today. I will go so far as to recommend that this be a measure that every school in Queensland is annually reviewed against by our Department. If this saves a life, then nothing else matters.
As the leaders of education we need to redefine success. Success for students can’t only be whether they get an ‘A’ on their English task. Success for teachers can’t be that their class received the best NAPLAN results. Success for principals and educational leaders can’t be who ranks the highest on league tables. Success for parents can’t only be that their child has been signed to an NRL team. Successful schools, classes and students need to be measured on something far more human, far more holistic, far more equitable and far more dignified. We need to measure and celebrate the human qualities – wellbeing, respectful relationships, connections, empathy and kindness. If we only see academic or sporting outcomes as success, then we have failed. This narrow view of success will continue to destroy our communities and our country.
Family and domestic violence is borne from small changes in already aggressive acts. Domestic violence starts in childhood – when aggressive behaviour goes unchecked, when hurtful comments go unaddressed, when coercive control goes uncontested. It is not little boys being little boys, it is aggression, it is violence and it is not okay. Systems, policies and laws can’t stop these murderers and violent offenders. It is too late by the time they become angry, aggressive and violent adults like the one who has sent shockwaves through the Australian community and a lifetime of untold heartache to my family and friends.
We can no longer just observe in private horror and send our sympathies. We can no longer look away and wait for someone else to act. Until our homes and communities are safe, and we are no longer living in fear, then nothing else matters. Together, as the leading educators of this country, we can act to halt family and domestic violence. We no longer have a choice, we have a responsibility. Nothing matters more than the wellbeing and futures of our children.
The Lord Mayor’s Charitable Trust is assisting Hannah’s family to establish a charity called ‘Small Steps 4 Hannah’ which honours her legacy and addresses domestic violence.