A Simple Question: "Is Our School Safe?"
Thy shall not be a victim.
Thy shall not be a perpetrator.
Above all, thy shall not be a bystander.
– Holocaust Museum, Washington DC
As you read this, keep asking yourself, 'How can this happen in Australia in the 21st century?'
Within days of working at Alekarenge School in Central Australia during Term 1, 2008, two Indigenous staff members expressed concern over asbestos exposure. They said they had asked a previous principal to check for asbestos years earlier but had never been told of the findings. I assumed there had been a miscommunication due to language and culture barriers and agreed to check with the Education Department (DEET – which has since changed its name to DET). Before I could do this, a dust-covered report was found lying in a back room. Dated 10 February 2005, it contained the results of a health inspection of school grounds three days earlier. The report said the inspection was requested by the then principal and school maintenance staff, who were concerned over the asbestos threat to students, staff and people walking both in and near the school. The staff specifically asked about their safety while working at the school in its present state (p. 5).
The report’s author and site inspector said he had found "many pieces" of material assumed to have been asbestos, scattered on the surface of the school grounds including near the preschool, upper primary and middle school, along the boundary fence and next to the principal’s office. The inspector said the material appeared to be surfacing through weathering and recommended “immediate action to reduce the risk” of potential exposure to Ali-Curung students and staff, as the school was built on an asbestos burial site from the 1970s (p. 1).
In a vacant lot adjacent to the school, he wrote, “it is evident that there are many pieces of ‘material containing asbestos’ believe (sic) to be surfacing as a result of environmental conditions (wind, rain)” that had removed the topsoil over the past 30 years (p. 2). The inspector noted that he had been told by teachers “that children have been seen to pick up these objects and throw them around...” (p. 2).
Among the report's recommendations:
"Obtain samples of pieces in yard, lino and inspection box and forward to DIPE for testing to identify if there is evidence of Asbestos in the material items." (p. 5)
Arrange for a “DIPE Asbestos inspector to visit the site and advise staff of the status of the area and what is needed to be done to make the place safe, if required.” (p. 5)
The report ends by stating in bold letters: “The main focus [of a further inspection] would be to determine the status of the area and conditions of the school grounds and buildings and advise staff of the outcome eg is area safe to work in and if not what is required to be done to rectify the situation...” (p. 6)
Standing in solidarity for answers on asbestos. Robert Bartholomew and his wife hold hands with the Indigenous female teaching staff at Alekarenge School, and then Aboriginal Police Officer Gwen Brown. Left to right, Leonie Walker, Dorothy Dickson, Zalina Abd Rahman, Ms. Brown, Dr Bartholomew, Arana Rice, Lucy Tanami. How hard is it to assess the health risk for asbestos and report back to those directly affected, in a timely manner?
I made inquiries and gave a copy of the 2005 report to an Education Department officer in Alice Springs, who promised to find out more and get back to us. He was unable to confirm that any of the report's recommendations had been acted on.
On Thursday 21 February I contacted DEET Occupational Health and Safety and wrote: “I do not want to be perceived as a ‘troublemaker’ on this matter, I simply would like to determine if our school is safe to work in... I was surprised to learn that to my knowledge, none of the recommendations... were ever acted upon, and the safety status of the school grounds seemed unresolved.”
This follow-up assessment with an inspector did not happen until two months later and only after an article discussing the situation appeared in The Weekend Australian on 19-20 April, and the following day in the Northern Territory media.
Therefore, there is no documented evidence that any of the 2005 report’s recommendations including immediate action to assess the risk of asbestos exposure, were acted on for over three years, during which time students and staff were at risk of breathing asbestos that could have been shredded by the school’s lawnmower, in addition to students playing with and breaking up pieces. The lawn was frequently mowed during this period during school hours and under very dry conditions, with the blades set on low, kicking up considerable clouds of dust. During Term 1 dogs dug holes into the topsoil that were in some cases over a foot deep, and students hiding under school foundation crawl spaces could be seen digging holes.
Holes under the school that were dug by both students and dogs, potentially exposing asbestos buried under the topsoil.
It then took an additional two months for an inspector to come to the school and assess the risk. This visit happened only after I raised the asbestos issue in the local and national news media. I can come up with but one plausible explanation for this state of affairs: the life of a ‘white’ child is valued more than that of an Indigenous child.
We later found that an asbestos inspection did not occur at the school until 23 April 2008 – 63 days after I had first raised the issue in writing (three weeks after we were ousted from the school), and just two days after the Darwin media report. As DET refused to tell me whether our school was safe from asbestos, acting in the best interests of the students and staff at Alekarenge School (and for the welfare of my family who may have been exposed), I assumed the worst (that testing had not been done) and therefore felt I had no other choice but to raise this issue in the media.
Question for the Education Department:
why did it take 63 days to send an inspector to the school? Am I not entitled receive a timely answer when asking if my wife, my children and the Indigenous students and school staff who I am obligated to protect, may have been exposed to asbestos?
The Education Department claims they implemented all of the recommendations of the 2005 report, yet they have been unable to confirm to an independent third party who conducted 10-months of enquiries, that DET implemented a single recommendation as the confirming documents are missing. As a result I have been forced to file a series of Freedom of Information Act requests to access the relevant documents.
Here is what I now know: Paul Newman was the Education Department executive with the responsibility to address the asbestos situation at our school. The material on the school grounds was asbestos and it was deemed so serious a threat that a special disposal site was supposedly created at the Ali-Curung Dump, and that the asbestos lay on the school grounds for well over a month before any action was taken to remove it.
Questions for Paul Newman:
"With respect for student and staff safety, why wasn’t the material attended to immediately?"
In 2008 after we raised the issue with DET, why was money spent to test and monitor the school for asbestos, if, as you claim, the asbestos threat was addressed in 2005?
When on 18 March 2008, in the presence of other DET executives, I raised concerns over whether the 2005 report had been actioned, you did not confirm this? If you had, I would have dropped the issue then and there. It directly affected my life and those I had a duty of care over. This is baffling.
If as you claim, you coordinated getting a special part of the Ali-Curung dump authorised as an asbestos disposal site, why wasn't the required approval received from the Central Land Council? I contacted the Central Land Council. Here is the reply: “I’ve looked into your inquiry asking whether an asbestos dump has been established or approved at Ali-Curung. I’m told no, an asbestos dump has not been approved or established at Ali-Curung." (Murray Silby, Central L
and Council, Alice Springs, letter dated 23 June 2009).
Why did you deem my wife and I unfit to teach Indigenous students in remote Territory schools without telling us, while we applied for dozens of remote teaching jobs and were never told of our incompetency until DET was forced to respond in writing 8-months later?
How could you deem us incompetent without you or anyone formally observing us?
Since the NT Education Department has not answered our questions and is sabotaging our teaching careers, we pose these questions directly to you. Here is your opportunity to correct the record. I will even publish your response unedited on this website.
Questions for other DET executives:
- On 19 April 2008, how could a DET spokesman forcefully proclaim to The Australian newspaper that all of the the recommendations of the 2005 asbestos report at the Alekarenge School had been implemented? If all of the documents confirming this are now missing, how could they make such an emphatic statement?
- When I told then Education Marion Scrymgour and then DET CEO Margaret Banks of my concerns that the 2005 asbestos report was never actioned – and an investigation was supposedly conducted – DET still would not confirm for me whether our school was safe and they refused to discuss the matter. Why? It's a simple question and the answer directly affects the health of everyone at the school. Why didn't DET simply write back and say – 'We've checked with Paul Newman and he assures us the report was actioned -- you need not worry about your health or that of your wife, children and the students under your care.' If DET had done this, I would have dropped the issue then and there. In February 2008 I asked a simple question: Is our school safe? I was legally and morally bound to raise this question. Your response is mystifying.
If DET could not confirm whether they had tested the school and implemented the report’s recommendations, why did they delay a further 63 days after I made them aware of the report in February 2008?
The DET executive who coordinated the asbestos cleanup at Alekarenge School in 2005 – did not get the required permission to dispose of the material. Is it not suspicious that this is the same executive who deemed my wife and I unfit to teach Indigenous children in remote Territory schools – without ever being formally observed, without our knowledge, with no written evidence, not informing us for eight months until forced to do so – and without the knowledge of the Schools’ own Group Principal Peter Jenkins? Given that DET and the former Territory Education Minister Marion Scrymgour refused to seriously investigate these concerns after over one year – and given that the Education Department is knowingly sabotaging our careers (See – “How DET is Sabotaging our Careers”) – we want a transparent investigation.
As DET has refused to clarify these issues and we have been unable to get a response from Mr Newman, we reluctantly raise this matter publicly to clear our names and offer Mr Newman the opportunity to answer our questions. We will publish his response -- unedited on this website.
How can this happen in Australia in the 21st century? How can the person who raised this issue (and his wife) suddenly lose their jobs in the most bizarre circumstances and nothing can be done? (See ‘Blacklisted!’). The only way to protect our careers is to expose this publicly.
The Northern Territory Teaching in the Territory website is one big con job who seek babysitters - try to make a difference and do your job and they will simply get rid of you (their contracts are designed this way - read the fine print).
Teaching jobs in the Northern Territory offer no stability.