School children's safety 'paramount' - Parata

By Kate Shuttleworth

Hekia Parata has been admonished for trying to close a special needs school for girls. Photo / Michael Craig
Hekia Parata has been admonished for trying to close a special needs school for girls. Photo / Michael Craig

Education Minister Hekia Parata maintains the safety of children at school is "paramount" as she comes under fire for trying to close a girls' special needs school by disregarding advice that the girls would face greater risk of sexual abuse.

Ms Parata said Salisbury Residential School for girls with intellectual disabilities would stay open next year, and she would not appeal a Wellington High Court decision against her plan.

Justice Robert Dobson ruled Ms Parata's order to close Salisbury School was unlawful because it relied on the possibility of sending girls at the home to live at Halswell School in Christchurch - a boys' special needs school.

Ms Parata has argued there was no evidence that adolescent girls with intellectual disabilities would be more vulnerable if they were placed in a school with boys.

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei called for the minister to be sacked. Green Party co-leader Russel Norman asked Prime Minister John Key how Ms Parata had met his high standards when she "unlawfully" decided to close the girls' school.

"Putting aside the unlawfulness of the minister's action, does a minister who blatantly disregards evidence about the safety of the most vulnerable girls, who abrogated her responsibility to consider their safety and who - according to the High Court - doesn't even think the safety of school kids is her business, does that minister still meet high standard?

"Doesn't it boil down to this; Hekia Parata is the person who is ultimately responsible for the safety of children at school and she has shown a blatant disregard for the safety of her children, and doesn't that make her unfit to be a minister of education," said Dr Norman.

Mr Key said Ms Parata had thoroughly considered the matter and had never considered having a co-education school, but a school that was co-located,

Mr Key said co-locating schools on a single site had a lot of merit.

Ms Parata said she wanted to continue in the role of education minister, and considered herself "hard-working".

"It has been a demanding and full year, and isn't that the way around education.

"I think if you ask former ministers of education of either administration they would say it's extremely challenging, but it is worthwhile that it be challenging, because it's important to all of us," said Ms Parata.

Labour's education spokesman Chris Hipkins asked the minister why she had not received a copy of the research by Professor Freda Briggs showing girls with intellectual disabilities were more vulnerable to sexual abuse in co-education environments than same-sex schools.

Ms Parata said she did not receive the report when she asked the Ministry of Education for advice, but had since asked for further advice, saying "safety is paramount in my considerations".

Mr Hipkins asked why Ms Parata had not given consideration to concerns raised by a trustee of Salisbury School in a meeting in October that girls at the school would be placed at great risk of abuse in a co-educational environment.

"In that very same meeting, Salisbury Board put forward a proposal for their own provision of co-educational schooling at Salisbury," Ms Parata said.

Earlier this year Ms Parata backed down on a pre-budgetary decision to increase class size. There have also been ongoing problems with the end-of-year teacher pay cycles, despite assurances teachers would be paid.

- APNZ

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