Mass expulsion at Sydney school

Last updated 05:00 21/12/2012

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More than 20 students have been thrown out of the prestigious University of Sydney college St John's after their alleged roles in the ''O'' Week ritual that left a female teenage student close to death in hospital.

None of the 33 students involved in the scandal would be returning to Australia's oldest Catholic college next March after its rector, Michael Bongers, wrote to 21 of the group on Thursday and advised them their re-admission had been declined. The other 12 did not reapply.

The unprecedented mass expulsion was backed by the college's newly appointed council and signalled a remarkable turnaround in what has arguably been the most tumultuous year in the college's 150-year history.

The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, said on Wednesday: ''I have not been made aware of any enrolment procedures but I do have every confidence in the council and high hopes for the future of the college.''

Trouble erupted in March when a first-year student was rushed to nearby Royal Prince Alfred Hospital with a bleeding stomach after being pressured to drink a toxic cocktail containing shampoo, alcohol and dog food.

When an investigation later exposed a culture of bullying and intimidation at the college, Cardinal Pell stepped in, ordering the five clerical fellows on St John's governing body to quit. Within a fortnight, all 18 fellows on the council had resigned.

Together with the university's vice-chancellor, Michael Spence, Cardinal Pell had since appointed a new board of 10 lay fellows and six clerical fellows who - along with two others yet to be chosen - would hold office at St John's for three years.

It is understood that at its first formal meeting last week, the council considered the formation of a special committee to address the lingering issue of ''the justice group'' and student re-admissions for next year.

One of the new fellows, however, pointed to existing bylaws and college policy that placed such decisions solely in the hands of the rector.

A source close to the college said: ''The council put it back to Bongers and reassured him they would support him in his decisions. There was already a strong movement among alumni and parents that these students not be asked back. The simple response was: 'Let's get rid of them.' And so that is what's happened.''

Aside from the ''justice'' incident, some of the banished students had additional unsavoury incidents and ''behavioural issues'' against their names while others displayed insufficient academic progress.

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While the students were entitled to continue their education at the University of Sydney, the ruling that they be kicked out of St John's was likely to have a ripple effect if they sought places at the other religious colleges situated on the university grounds.

''The colleges share committee members, they share ideas and information, they are quite close in that respect,'' said a University of Sydney source. ''These students would ultimately need a good reference, and it goes without saying they won't be receiving one from St John's.''

It was understood St John's would start next year with a zero-tolerance policy towards outdated rituals, excessive drinking and anti-social behaviour.

The new chairman of the college council, John Phillips, declined to comment about the expulsion decision but said a statement regarding the ''intentions of the new council'' would be released in the coming days.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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