This story has been found to have breached a Media Council principle in that it did not make it clear that no adults were involved in the "sexual behaviour". The full decision can be viewed here. A summary of the decision is published below this story.
The Ministry of Education received three complaints last year about alleged sexual behaviour at an embattled West Auckland school where more than half the board has resigned en masse.
The complaints related to two separate incidents, both of which were reported to police and child support services. Both incidents are thought to have involved children.
Four Whenuapai School board of trustees representatives resigned this week and another resigned earlier this year. None of them has been replaced, according to the ministry.
Government officials plan to meet with the school's executive this week "to discuss the next steps".
Revelations uncovered by the Herald include:
• Three complaints regarding two alleged sexual behaviour incidents at the decile 9 primary school, made last year.
• Both incidents were referred to police and Oranga Tamariki.
• Six complaints about the school were made to the ministry last year.
• The school's roll has fallen sharply from 475 in 2013 to 390 in 2017.
Some parents claimed a bullying culture was rife within the school, which had experienced serious staff turnover. Principal Raewyn Matthys-Morris did not respond to requests for comment yesterday and outgoing board members refused to comment. It is not known why they resigned.
But a parent, who did not wish to be named, said people coming forward with any complaints were made to feel isolated.
She said a "bullying culture" was rife within the school and her child had even witnessed teachers crying in the classroom.
A "mass exodus" of families had been felt in the school community along with a high staff turnover in recent years.
She claimed there were "cases where children were abused on school grounds and the BoT and management refused to acknowledge these legitimate cases ... these families were forced to leave for their safety".
The parent was pleased with the resignations. "This is a great outcome for the school going forward."
Education Ministry deputy secretary sector enablement and support Katrina Casey said officials would be working through a range of issues brought to the ministry's attention.
"We take these issues very seriously and will be meeting with the school board and leadership over the coming days," she said.
"Last year we received three complaints about the board of trustees' and school's management of two separate incidents of alleged sexual behaviour."
Casey said Oranga Tamariki and the police were the appropriate authorities to investigate allegations of any form of abuse against children.
"When we are made aware of an allegation we ensure those agencies have been told and they will then make a judgment on what, if any, investigations or action they will take.
"Our role is to support the school, to work with them and ensure student safety and learning is maintained," Casey said. "We did exactly that in this instance."
She was aware of concerns about "high staff turnover and its impact on student achievement".
When asked about accusations of bullying, Casey said allegations regarding the school leadership were referred to the board as the governing body in the first instance.
The school had started a schoolwide programme last year to support positive behaviour, "including the prevention and management of bullying behaviour".
"The school has started the Positive Behaviour for Learning — Schoolwide programme in 2017 to support positive behaviour across the whole Whenuapai School community including the prevention and management of bullying behaviour."
Oranga Tamariki North and West Auckland regional manager Jaimee Barwood said its focus was always on the welfare of children.
"When there is an allegation of abuse or harm to a child in an education setting, Oranga Tamariki works closely with police and the ministry ... to respond appropriately — that occurred in this instance."
Oranga Tamariki closed the case later once it was confirmed that the family had engaged with appropriate support services, she said.
According to documents released to the Herald under the Official Information Act, six complaints were made to the ministry about the school between April and August last year.
In one instance a parent was so dissatisfied with the school's response to an incident at a school camp she said she would take her child elsewhere.
She told the school it was no longer "the best fit" for her child.
In another, a parent raised an incident with the police's Child Protection Team.
"After being contacted by Child, Youth and Family, the school's principal advised us that the school was not aware of the incident referred to by the parents, and that it was unlikely that any incident would not have been noticed," a summary of the event, provided by the ministry, read.
"The principal noted that they had discussed with the parents measures to keep their child and other children safe."
In another complaint a teacher was accused of making a disparaging comment about a child.
"The principal stated that she had discussed the comments with the teacher concerned, and apologised to the parent for the comment," the summary read.
"The principal noted that the statement did not reflect the opinions of the school's leaders."
A child was withdrawn from school in another complaint after the school allegedly lost her child's school records, and had difficulty retrieving learning support items.
A final complaint about bullying also made mention that "high staff turnover" at the school had a negative effect on her child's development.
Summary of Media Council decision
The Media Council has part-upheld a complaint about the New Zealand Herald's reporting on April 25 and April 26 concerning Whenuapai School.
It expressed concern that the articles did not make it clear that no adults were involved in the so-called 'sexual behaviour'.
The first article School in turmoil: claims of 'sexual behaviour' referred to police outlined a number of issues at Whenuapai School including claims of 'sexual behaviour', a bullying culture within the school, staff turnover as well as the resignation of four Whenuapai School board of trustees representatives and a decline in the school roll.
The second article 'Sexual behaviour' claims: Ministry of education asked to intervene at Whenuapai School mentioned a request to the Ministry of Education for support by a Limited Statutory Manager as well as a letter sent out to parents from the Board of Trustees.
The complainant expressed concern that the articles were biased and intentionally misleading; that they expressed only the views of those who were critical of the school; that the reference to "sexual behaviour" put the staff under suspicion and children under stress, when it was on record that the incidents referred to did not involve adults; and that the headlines were click-bait.
The duty editor advised that the school had been approached several times for comment and that other comments critical of the school had not been published.
The term "sexual behaviour" was not used for shock value, but was the term used by the Ministry of Education, which had appointed a statutory manager to take over the running of the school.
The articles did not rely on hearsay. The main points were based on interventions by the Ministry of Education, the police and Oranga Tamariki. The articles also quoted the concerns of some parents who wished to remain anonymous.
The editor noted the article had said 'Both incidents are thought to have involved children' but he acknowledged that a reference to adults not being involved in the incidents, which had been removed in subbing, would have made the situation clearer.
The Media Council upheld the complaint under Principle 1 Accuracy Fairness and Balance, noting that the articles did not clearly state that adults were not involved in the "sexual behaviour".
Also, while noting the Herald had offered the principal and board repeated opportunities to respond to no avail, balance and a fair voice could have been achieved by including the views of those who were supportive of the school.
The Council did not uphold the other aspects of the complaint relating to Children and Young People, Headlines, Comment and Fact and Subterfuge.
The full Media Council ruling can be found at www.mediacouncil.org.nz.