High-needs female students 'at risk of abuse'
High-needs female students will be at risk of sexual abuse, including rape, if they attend a co-ed residential school for students with disabilities, a lawyer for Nelson's Salisbury School says.
Education Minister Hekia Parata announced last month that the all-girls school would close at the end of the year and some of the 65 students would have the option of attending Halswell Residential College in Christchurch, which would change from an all boys school to a co-ed one.
But a lawyer for Salisbury School's board of trustees, which has sought a judicial review over the issue, says research shows that the girls will be at a heightened risk of sexual abuse because of their physical and intellectual impairment.
In the High Court at Wellington today lawyer Mai Chen presented "disturbing material" from Professor Freda Briggs, who undertook studies into both schools in the mid 1990s and in 2005.
Chen said Briggs' research showed that many students had a history of physical and mental abuse and that nearly all of the boys at Halswell Residential College had experienced sexual abuse of some kind while at school.
The abuse often occurred in the toilet changing rooms or outside of normal school hours. "In other words they were opportunistic," Chen said.
"Most of the boys accepted this abuse as normal sexual behaviour."
Chen also cited information from Peter Campbell, national president for disability advocacy group Parent to Parent.
Campbell said his experience as chief executive of a residential facility showed that mixing females and males with complex physical and intellectual needs in the same setting created an unsafe environment.
"It frequently results in inappropriate behaviour," Chen quoted him as saying.
Usually the sexual advances were from the male students towards the females.
Many parents who attended the hearing today said they would not send their daughters to the school, which will be co-ed from next year.
Their daughters don't know the difference between inappropriate and appropriate behaviour, they said.
All girls have had to meet specific criteria to attend Salisbury School, including that there were no suitable schools in their local area to accommodate them.
Their parents say they will send their daughters to a local school which cannot adequately care for their needs rather than Halswell Residential College, where they believe they will be at risk from the male students.
"Boys will act opportunistically, add in a co-educational environment and there will be many opportunities for students to mix together ... with little or no supervision," Chen quoted Briggs as saying.
The female and male students would be mixing not just for six hours a day, but 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
In an affidavit to the court, Parata said measures to ensure student safety at Halswell would include accommodating boys and girls in separate, secure, well-monitored villas.
The Education Ministry had also advised her it had looked for, but been unable to find, any research or evidence that had identified undue safety risks for girls with intellectual impairment in a co-ed setting, as opposed to in a single sex setting.
''I do not accept that co-educational schools are necessarily unsafe for such learners,'' she said.
Justice Robert Dobson reserved his decision.