'Racist' Howick puts stop to special school

MICHAEL FOX
Last updated 09:40 05/06/2012

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A report on opposition to a proposed school for troubled youth, meant to open this year, revealed prejudices and racist views harboured by a well-off Auckland community.

Thurston Place College was to be built in Howick to cater for up to 100 young people in Child Youth and Family care, between Years 7 and 13, who authorities believed would benefit from an alternative education.

Plans to open the $6.3 million facility near two junior schools were canned last month after intense community opposition led by the Buckland's Beach Action Society and the Stop Thurston Place College campaign.

The troubled students will instead stay in regular schools where they will receive extra support.

An independent report into opposition to the school was meant to ''cut through the emotional outrage'', but instead described fear and loathing in Howick and told of residents running scared from those who vehemently opposed it.

Papatoetoe College principal Peter Gall, who was chairman of the board for the proposed college, said this week that there was ''a strong sense of irony'' about those who opposed the initiative.

''What amazed me was that the actions of this group were actually as serious if not more serious than the sorts of behaviour they were accusing the young people of.''

This included vandalism of school property, harassment and unfounded "scare tactics''.

Gall said members of the Howick community had contacted him saying how ''embarrassed'' they were about the attitudes expressed by their community.

According to the report, commissioned by the Ministry of Education, opponents called it a ''prep school for Mt Eden jail'', said they would remove their children from neighbouring schools if it went ahead and would call police ''immediately'' if they saw students outside school grounds. There would be a "dark shadow every time we go out", they said.

Supporters felt too intimidated to attend community workshops on it, one woman sought police protection and an expat described the community racism as worse than what she witnessed in South Africa, which she left ''to get away from racial intolerance, yet what I'm experiencing in Howick is a lot worse''.

One resident is quoted as saying: ''If I wanted to be surrounded by these cultures, I'd have bought a house in South Auckland.''

Suggestions for dealing with students included fitting them with GPS tracking devices, making them wear high-visibility uniforms and installing a ''community siren'' to sound if they left school grounds.

The report said residents feared property values would plummet, their children would be in danger from bigger Maori and Pacific Islanders, their insurance premiums would rise, property would be stolen and boats at the neighbouring marina damaged.

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Others were more fearful for the students.

''Why put them in a community that hates them?'' one person is recorded as asking.

A potential student made aware of the concerns asked: ''What, do they think we are axe murderers?''

Supporters said they were intimidated to the point where they were too scared to attend public meetings while one woman sought police protection ''as a direct result of speaking out in support of the school'', the report said.

Police could not confirm what support was provided.

Opposition leader Richard Spong, spokesmen for Beach Action Society and the Stop Thurston Place College campaign, doesn't believe the report is a ''fair reflection" of community views.

''I think there's probably people within the community who are racist but on the whole I think we're quite racially tolerant.''

It was ''easy to pick and choose a few angry people in the neighbourhood'', he said.

Spong said the group was concerned about the behaviour of potential students - some of whom would have criminal histories, gang affiliations, be substance abusers and had displayed inappropriate sexual behaviour.

Spong admitted the community had not been tolerant of those who supported the school, saying they had been ''shouted down'' in meetings, but those people had vested interests and didn't understand their opposition, he claimed.

- Auckland Now

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