Students don't trust schools to protect them from abusers

The child sex abuse royal commission is hearing evidence about the nature, cause and impact of offending.
The child sex abuse royal commission is hearing evidence about the nature, cause and impact of offending. Photo: iStock

An alarming number of Australian students don't trust schools to keep them safe.

That's the key finding of a new report that will serve as a wake up call for schools which are trying to stamp out abuse in the wake of damning revelations aired at the Royal Commission.

While many schools are rolling out programs to encourage students to report sexual abuse, bullying and harassment, only one quarter of surveyed students said they would turn to a teacher for help.

The Australian Catholic University report, which was conducted for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and released on Wednesday, found that one in 10 students believed that adults at their schools would not know what to do if they reached out for help.

In a surprise finding, students said they felt safer at church, sporting institutions and camps than they did at school. Just 57 per cent of young people said they felt safe most of the time at school, compared to 67.4 per cent at church.

How often young Australians felt safe in different institutions.

Source: Our safety counts: Children and young people's perceptions of safety and institutional responses to their safety concerns

Students also reported that they would not be believed if they reported abuse, and that there was no adult at their school that they trusted and would talk to.

Lead researcher Tim Moore from the Australian Catholic University's Institute of Child Protection Studies said students who had encountered potentially abusive adults were reluctant to seek help at school, and instead relied on friends or family or dealt with the issue alone.  

"They were worried the conversation would be uncomfortable and others felt that things would get worse if someone knew," Dr Moore said.

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The study was based on surveys with 1,142 young people aged between 10 and 18, who were asked to respond to a series of questions about safety and two scenarios where teachers displayed creepy behaviour and grooming.

Dr Moore said that while schools had created great systems to handle abuse allegations, students were often unaware of them.

"Young people  feel unsure about raising concerns with adults because in the past adults haven't been able to deal with difficult conversations. Adults need to get over their own anxieties, and talk to children in an age-appropriate way," he said. 

The researchers had trouble recruiting schools to take part in the study, with some teachers saying they were unable to participate because it was too sensitive and they could not convince parents that it would not cause distress.

Students were also quizzed about whether they felt adults valued their opinions.

The majority of students felt that their opinions were valued "all the time" in church and sporting clubs, while only 25 per cent said that this was the case at school.

The study was conducted in partnership with Griffith University and the Queensland University of Technology.