Minister says sorry over bungles on 13-year-old murderer

Waitara High School principal Jenny Gellen
Waitara High School principal Jenny Gellen

A school principal whose 13-year-old student committed murder has earned an apology from the minister of education, after emails expressing concern about the ministry's tracking of troubled youths were ignored for months.

Jenny Gellen, principal of Taranaki's Waitara High School, emailed Education Minister Hekia Parata on May 25, five weeks after year 9 pupil Jordan Nelson was arrested for the murder of his grandfather's partner, Rosemaree Kurth.

In her email, Gellen said the school had never been informed about the boy's past involvement with Child Youth and Family, or any behavioural or pastoral issues.

She expressed concern that the ministry's electronic student record system, ENROL, often failed to raise red flags about students' health, behavioural or family issues. In another case, a student who arrived at Waitara with a clear file later tried to set fire to a tractor shed, and turned out to have had a long history of violence, truancy and disruptive behaviour, Gellen said.

Gellen said information that would have been available under the old paper- based system was absent from ENROL, and she asked Parata if there was any way to "ensure all information is known by the enrolling school".

A week later she received a bizarre reply from Parata which consisted of two pages of statistics about education budgets and classroom sizes, and no mention of ENROL.

A bemused Gellen replied pointing out that Parata's email made "no reference at all to my original concerns", but she never received a response.

Last week a spokesperson for Parata said her office was "sincerely sorry" for the email blunder, and had emailed Gellen to apologise.

At the time the emails were sent, Parata was under sustained attack from teachers and parents over unpopular Budget plans to increase school class sizes, a policy she eventually abandoned.

The spokesperson said the office had been receiving "hundreds" of emails from schools and responding to them, and, in error, Gellen had been sent information about the Budget. A later email addressing the ENROL issue was sent to the school board's chair, but Gellen was not copied in.

PPTA president Robin Duff said communication between teachers and Parata could be difficult at the best of times. "We've found that with this minister, you can ask questions but rarely do you get a direct and relevant answer."

Last week, Parata was unavailable for comment about ENROL.

An Education Ministry spokesman said ENROL was not intended to replace the old system of passing paper-based notes on academic, behavioural or custodial matters between schools.

Rather, it was a central electronic enrolment register on which schools could note the existence of such paper files. A student's new school could then request files from an old school.

In a statement, CYF manager Marama Edwards said it was clear CYF staff should have communicated more effectively with Waitara High School over Nelson's custodial and behavioural history.

Taranaki Daily News