Judgment blow to Parata's plan

ANDREA VANCE AND MATT BOWEN
Last updated 08:49 12/12/2012

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Judge finds risk of abuse disregarded, report Andrea Vance and Matt Bowen. 

Embattled education minister Hekia Parata has endured another blow after a judge ruled her decision to close a residential girls' school unlawful.

The government proposed shutting Salisbury School in Nelson and moving the pupils, including 11 Waikato students, to Halswell school in Christchurch next year.

Parents and the residential special school board fought the move, arguing that sending the girls to a co-ed school would put them at risk of abuse.

Justice Dobson agreed the decision disregarded "the prospect of greater risk of sexual or physical abuse" to the girls if they were sent to a co-ed special needs school.

The judgement said the government was also wrong to assume girls could be enrolled at Halswell residential school in Christchurch while it legally remains a single-sex boys' school.

Cambridge lawyer and Salisbury School trustee member Jocelyn Cooney was celebrating the decision last night.

She felt "absolutely delighted" and "vindicated".

"The minister really should have asked the right questions to ensure the advice she was getting was correct."

Ms Cooney, who had a niece at Salisbury School, said while the decision was ruled unlawful, it didn't say the school would remain open - that will be the next step.

"As far as I'm concerned the school will be open for business next year and will continue for the whole year."

"I think it's a huge decision. I think it's quite rare for a minister's decision to be found illegal."

Lawyer Mai Chen called on the government to overturn the decision. "The school board has lost confidence in the minister and they don't want the same minister to take the decision again.

"The judgment is very critical. It shows the ministry didn't do their homework, they simply got the numbers wrong," she said.

The board had presented Ms Parata with research which showed the girls were seven times more likely to be abused in a co-ed school, but this was ignored. The school can't afford to fight if the Government lodges an appeal - and ran cake stalls last weekend to pay their current legal bills, she said.

"I would be horrified if they appealed. They need to listen to what the judge is telling them."

Labour's associate education spokesman, Chris Hipkins, said Ms Parata was "riding roughshod" over due process.

"The High Court ruling today on Salisbury is a victory for the parents' persistence, common sense and proper process. It's also a slap in the face for a minister of the Crown to have their actions ruled unlawful," he said.

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Greens education spokeswoman Catherine Delahunty said the school has been vindicated - and slated Ms Parata for not listening to parents and teachers.

"The Prime Minster must now look very seriously at whether Hekia Parata is the best person for the job in education."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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