Editorial: Assurances needed on students' safety

Last updated 13:12 02/11/2012

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All power to the board of Salisbury School should it opt to mount a legal challenge against Education Minister Hekia Parata's decision to close the Richmond-based school. In engaging formidable public law specialist Mai Chen to assist with its final submission to Ms Parata, the board of trustees sends a strong signal: that it sees the school as worth fighting for to the bitter end.

If that relationship continues, and if legal advice is that some key questions around the legislative tests behind the decision do offer reasonable grounds for a challenge, then the Government might well have a battle on its hands.

Ms Parata doesn't see it that way. She believes the process the ministry has followed to be robust and thorough, while admitting the decision to disestablish the school had been an "extremely difficult" one.

Supporters of the school - and there are many, both in Nelson and further afield - will be hoping the minister is wrong, and that the board do have sufficient tools in the drawer to force a reversal.

One key objection that emerged in the board's final submission is both procedural and fundamental. Girls needing residential care post-Salisbury will be sent to co-educational facilities in Halswell, in Christchurch, under the new plan.

It is currently a single-sex school and would require a change in legal status to become a co-ed. This cannot be done until 2014. To close Salisbury, the ministry would need to provide alternative facilities. If Halswell can not legally provide them for all of next year, what is the minister's plan B for all of the many students involved?

A second point will resonate strongly among those directly involved with the school, including the parents of the girls who seem to thrive at Salisbury having often "failed" to respond under other forms of care. The submission accuses the ministry of failing to advise the minister of an assessment of the safety and risks associated with establishing a co-ed facility for young people with intellectual disabilities.

It bases this on documents released under the Official Information Act - and, if true, this would seem to represent a significant failing in the duty of care that the ministry surely must have for these particularly vulnerable girls.

The board also points to several apparent flaws in the consultation process. As well as the minister's obvious reluctance to engage with the board or school community throughout the past year, a strong case could be made for the outcome having been predetermined. Legal consultation requires an "open mind", after all. The board also put forward two cost-neutral options that would have allowed the school to remain open which appear to have been ignored.

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If the issue does get to court on judicial review, the ministry and minister's defence of such points will be interesting to observe. However, the community needs and deserves some reassurances in the wake of Ms Parata's decision. First and foremost, on the safety - physical, emotional, educational - of these very susceptible young women who, under the minister's plan, are to be forced abruptly into a new, co-educational environment. She and her colleagues will be judged on this decision.

- The Nelson Mail

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