Editorial: Lessons from a scandal

Last updated 05:00 16/08/2013

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OPINION: It's the sort of heroism nobody would want their children to have to display.

Police are quite rightly full of praise for a boy whose "absolute courage" has at long, long last brought a hideously damaging paedophile to account.

Disgraced Northland teacher James Parker's sentencing to preventive detention is thoroughly deserved by crimes against 20 boys during 13 years.

It is offending of a scale without comparison in New Zealand, with the charges representing more than 300 offences.

Though the sentence comes with a minimum term of just seven years, that low figure should not be misinterpreted. It merely brings forward the date in which treatment might start.

The reality is that Parker will remain in jail until the Parole Board decides he is no longer a danger - and even then he can be recalled at any time for the rest of his life.

This sentencing was a horribly long time coming. As lead detective Mark Dalzell says, there are many reasons why victims of sexual abuse find it difficult to come forward.

But without diminishing the bravery of the boy who stepped up to provide the cornerstone evidence for the case, this still stands as a story that offers enormous cautionary lessons as well.

Police conduct in this long-faltering investigation should not be criticised. School conduct must be.

When Parker was a student teacher on a provisional licence at a previous school, flags about his suitability had been raised, but he survived that scrutiny and found work at Pamapuria School, east of Kaitaia.

From a 2009 investigation police could not substantiate the allegations against him, but did send the school a sternly worded letter about their abiding concerns.

Parents were told nothing but on top of that, the school kept the police letter in-house to the extent that neither the Education Review Office, nor the Teachers' Council, were given a heads-up.

Principal Stephen Hovell did not even closely monitor Parker's behaviour after he had returned from leave taken during the police investigation. We now know, wretchedly, that the scale and depravity of Parker's offending actually escalated after that investigation.

And that when Hovell learned Parker had been been taking kids home to stay the night - for heaven's sake - the principal went no further than, by his own account, having a quiet word with him and telling him not to do that any more.

That was, by any measure, scandalous.

Compounding that disgrace, Hovell responded to his own royally deserved sacking by claiming unjustified dismissal. The Employment Relations Authority begged to differ.

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Nothing in this story should corrode society's acceptance that a high standard of evidence is needed for a prosecution to be mounted, let alone to succeed. Nor should it mean that the standard is somehow lower for teachers, or people in similar positions of trust, than for anyone else.

However, while alarm bells were sounding loudly from the police, the school through its principal was missing in action when assessed against a reasonable requirement to be vigilant on behalf of its pupils.

It's a lesson that needs to be borne in mind the length and breadth of the country.

- The Southland Times

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