Hekia Parata will not appeal Salisbury decision

Jubilant: Brenda Ellis principal of Salisbury School with happy pupils and staff at the Richmond school today.
Jubilant: Brenda Ellis principal of Salisbury School with happy pupils and staff at the Richmond school today.

Education Minister Hekia Parata has ruled out an appeal over the High Court decision on the closure of Nelson's Salisbury school.

Ms Parata said the safety of children was paramount and at the forefront of considerations during the process to close two and retain two residential schools.

In a reserved judgment yesterday, High Court judge Robert Dobson said Ms Parata's order to close Salisbury School was unlawful because it relied on the possibility of sending some girls to live at a boys special needs school in Christchurch.

That disregarded warnings the girls would face greater risk of sexual abuse.

Ms Parata said the judgment identified issues "that I now need to consider in any fresh decision about the school. I will take some time to do that but I am not going to appeal this decision''.

"I realise that the changes in residential special education has created an uncertain environment for students and their families at Salisbury School. I do not wish this decision to continue that uncertainty so as well as the existing option of the Intensive Wraparound Service, Salisbury School will remain open next year for students currently attending the school.

"The Board of Salisbury has been advised of this as well as my intention to meet with them early in the New Year.''

"All of us want the best outcomes for learners with complex special education needs. I am committed to making sure that happens.

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei has called for Parata to be sacked after the judge's ruling.

Ms Turei said this was Ms Parata's "latest and most dangerous failure" and left her position untenable. She called on Prime Minister John Key to sack her.

National had also faced a public backlash over plans to close schools in Canterbury following the earthquakes.

"Hekia Parata's blatant disregard for the safety of girls at Salisbury College in Nelson must be the final straw,'' Ms Turei said.

Ms Parata was unwilling to listen and her refusal to heed warnings about pupil safety was "dangerous and extraordinarily arrogant."

"What kind of minister would put school girls in harm's way? You simply can' t have someone in the job who does that," she said.

Earlier, the school's board said it had lost confidence in Ms Parata.

"We think it is time that more hard questions are asked of her and her ministry's competency," said board chairwoman Helen McDonnell.

In October, Ms Parata announced that Salisbury School, a residential school for girls with complex needs, would close at the end of the year. Some of the students would have the option of attending Halswell Residential College in Christchurch, which would change from a boys' school to a co-educational one.

But Salisbury School, which has been open since 1914 and now has 80 students from around the country and 62 staff, sought a judicial review.

It argued sending the girls to a co-ed school would put them at risk and said there were questions around whether legislative tests had been met.

In his decision, Justice Dobson agreed with the school's argument. He said Ms Parata's decision to close the school was unlawful in assuming a lawful power to authorise enrolment of up to half as many girls as boys at Halswell next year while it remained a single sex boys' school.

The decision was also unlawful in disregarding the prospect of greater risk of sexual or physical abuse to girls at a co-educational residential special needs school.

Justice Dobson said it was a matter of common sense that the risk of sexual abuse for girls with impaired intellect was likely to increase the more they were in the company of potential abusers such as intellectually impaired boys.

No great leap in logic was needed to recognise the validity of concerns over having boys and girls together for the educational aspects of residential special needs education, he said.

Those concerns were valid even if a completely effective separation of the residential aspects of schooling in a co-educational setting was achieved.

"Those changes introduce a risk that would not be present in the single sex environment at Salisbury School."

The minister's decision either failed to give regard to available warning signals raised about greater levels of risk of abuse in a co-educational setting, or was influenced by the irrelevant proposition that there was an absence of research confirming such concerns.

Either way, the decision was "flawed in a respect that renders it unlawful".

Mrs McDonnell said she felt vindicated with the result, and pleased that common sense had prevailed.

"It's huge. It's huge for the families, it's huge for the girls. We have got mothers who are in tears with happiness.

"We're feeling that we're being listened to, finally being heard."

The school was hopeful the minister would listen to the judge's decision and not appeal the process, and was going ahead with planning for the 2013 school year. "As far as we're concerned, we're staying open."

The school would also be seeking court costs, she said.

The ministry had "stuffed up" the process, but the judgment also acknowledged that mixing the two genders was unacceptable.

"The fundamental issue about putting these two cohorts together in a co-educational setting puts them at a high level of risk.

"The judge has agreed that they haven't done enough research on that or listened to what we have presented."

"We have lost faith in the minister because this whole process is supposed to be open and transparent but they haven't looked at or taken seriously our concerns.

"We have had to go to this extent, to the High Court, in order for a judge to say you need to take this seriously.

"It's taken that to prove that these are serious issues that we're facing. They could have avoided all of this. If the whole consultation had been genuine and transparent, we wouldn't have had to go to this extent."

Ms Parata said today: "The safety of children has always been paramount and was very much at the forefront during this process.

"We are committed to providing the best education for children and young people with complex behavioural needs."

HOW TO DONATE Anyone wanting to donate to Salisbury School's legal costs can do so at any local Westpac branch or online at salisbury.school.nz.