The plan to make it easier for bullying victims to sue schools

The state government is considering changes to make it easier, and less traumatic, for bullying victims to sue their schools
The state government is considering changes to make it easier, and less traumatic, for bullying victims to sue their schools Photo: Supplied

A private school's refusal to pay compensation to a boy who was so badly beaten he required surgery has prompted the state government to investigate changes to make it easier for bullying victims to sue schools.

The 13-year-old had to undergo a knee reconstruction after he was assaulted by a classmate at his private boys school in 2016.

Despite the perpetrator being charged by police and placed on a 12-month good behaviour bond, the victim’s former school refused his compensation claim.

It instead sent the victim to an independent medical panel for an examination – a process that led to the family abandoning legal action because it was too traumatic.

The boy's mother has been lobbying the state government to change the law to make it easier for bullying victims to seek compensation.

Victorian Education Minister James Merlino wrote to the mother last month and said he was concerned to hear about the boy's experience and its impact on the family.

Mr Merlino told The Age he had asked the Attorney-General for advice about how medical panels could adopt "less invasive" processes.

"There is no place for bullying in Victorian schools," he said.

The bullying started in 2016 when the perpetrator, a Year 8 classmate, started charging at the boy and slamming him into walls.

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The violence continued after the boy had a knee reconstruction in the middle of the year to repair a football injury.

As he was waiting on crutches outside a classroom, the perpetrator corked him in his injured knee and said “now we are even”. The boy fell to the ground, crying.

The perpetrator also created an Instagram group chat where he told the boy to kill himself and called him a ‘f---wit, pussy, midget and crippled’.

In October, the perpetrator charged at the boy again while he was waiting for the school bus on school property.

“I fell over immediately and felt pain in my knee,” the boy’s statement to police reads.

“I felt like something was out of place and my knee was damaged.”

A visit to the hospital confirmed that the boy’s knee graft had come away. He had to undergo another knee reconstruction and has been unable to play contact sport since.

The mother said the school rewarded the perpetrator with a school badge while he was appearing before the Children’s Court over the charges, which included stalking, using a carriage service to harass and recklessly causing injury.

Non-government schools can decide whether or not to refer claims to a medical panel.

Under the Wrongs Act, these panels determine whether injuries have reached a threshold that warrants compensation for pain and suffering.

The mother, who cannot be named for legal reasons, said her son’s former school referred him to the panel despite a medical assessment concluding he had reached the required threshold of impairment.

She told The Age that the assessment, which she also attended, was traumatic.

“Once again he had to retell the events of how he was physically assaulted on more than one occasion and was required to go into detail," she said. "During the assessment he turned to me and I saw the look of pain on his face and all I wanted to do was take his pain away.”

The panel said the boy’s injuries were ongoing and they would have to review his condition in August.

“My son said he couldn’t attend any more assessments,” the mother said.

“I refuse to put my son through any more trauma because his wellbeing is paramount ... this is why I ceased legal action and continue to bear the costs for my son’s recovery.”

The family was seeking compensation to pay for the now 16-year-old's ongoing medical expenses, which include regular physiotherapy sessions, as well as pain and suffering. The boy's mother said she was more than $7500 out of pocket.

Bullying continues to be a major issue in Australian schools, with government data revealing that almost 18 per cent of Victorian students in years 7 to 9 were bullied last year.

Nunzio Tartaglia, Slater and Gordon's general manager of personal injury law for Victoria, said schools were not obliged to cover the medical expenses of students who had been bullied.

“The litigation is there as a last resort,” he said.

Mr Tartaglia said defendants referred bullying victims to medical panels in the hope that they could avoid paying compensation.

“It is not easy because the victims have to repeat their stories, but unfortunately it is the nature of the litigation and it cannot be avoided.”

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