Chch school 'not safe' for girls with high needs

A group of mothers of girls with high needs disabilities say there is no way they will send their daughters to a co-educational residential school in Christchurch when Nelson's Salisbury School closes at the end of the year.

Four Auckland mothers were among a group of concerned parents who travelled to Wellington yesterday to attend the High Court hearing into the closure of the school.

They say their daughters will be safer at an all-girls mainstream school, even though it might not be able to appropriately care for them, than at the Halswell Residential College in Christchurch, mixing with teenage boys with severe physical and intellectual impairments.

Education Minister Hekia Parata has said the all-girls school, which provides 24/7 residential care to high needs students, will close at the end of the year and Halswell, an all-boys facility, will be co-ed from January 27.

Kirsten Smith, Amanda Swann and Kelly Woods say their daughters, all current students at Salisbury School, will not be attending Halswell next year.

They fear for their daughters' safety, saying they don't know the difference between inappropriate and appropriate behaviour.

Smith's 13-year-old daughter once had her skirt lifted up by a group of boys but did not have the ability to know it was wrong.

"It was just a game [to her]. She doesn't understand the difference between laughing at and laughing with," she said.

"I would never risk my daughter like that," she says of the move to place the male and female students together in the same facility. "It's just not worth it."

The school's board of trustees is seeking a judicial review of Parata's decision and its lawyer, Mai Chen, yesterday presented in the High Court at Wellington "disturbing material" from Professor Freda Briggs, who undertook studies into both schools in the mid-1990s and in 2005.

Chen said Briggs' research showed many students had a history of physical and mental abuse and that nearly all 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 normal school hours.

"In other words they were opportunistic," Chen said. "Most of the boys accepted this abuse as normal sexual behaviour."

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.

Ministry special education group manager Brian Coffey said there had been no reported difficulties from secondary schools and day special schools over the education of children with special needs in co-ed settings.

All of the 27 day special schools for learners with intellectual impairment were co-ed, and 73 of the 77 secondary school special needs units were in co-ed schools, he said.

Justice Robert Dobson reserved his decision, saying he hoped to be able to have it ready before Christmas.

The Press