Claims of physical abuse and bullying at a large girls’ school have been poorly handled and dismissed by staff, former students say. Farah Hancock spoke to their parents about what happened, and the ensuing exodus of girls to a nearby school.

Parents want to lift the lid on a series of incidents of bullying at a prominent South Island public school, saying not enough was done to protect students and ensure intimidation is stopped. 

The school, Nelson College for Girls, refuses to discuss the allegations, claiming the parents’ information is inaccurate but Newsroom has interviewed four families affected by the bullying.

In the period since the allegations, high numbers of college students have left the school to enrol elsewhere in the region.

The mother of one former student has been campaigning for more than two years for what she feels would be justice, and would like to see the school’s principal lose her position.

Since the incident involving her daughter, the woman said there’s been a flood of students leaving the school – and more bullying.

“My friend’s daughter got bullied. She went to Nayland College and the lady said, ‘You’re the 27th girl this term to move here from Nelson Girls College.’”

Newsroom has spoken to parents of four former students who expressed concerns at the way the school managed incidents involving bullying or student safety. More than one incident has led to police involvement. 

All of the girls involved have now left Nelson College for Girls. Some have serious ongoing issues as a result of their experiences.

The allegations include: ignoring parent and student reports of verbal bullying, not allowing a bullied student to call her mother after she was physically attacked, telling students not to tell their parents about bullying, failing to seek medical help and police assistance, and the treatment of the victims in a way seen by some parents as punishment. 

The parents Newsroom spoke to were happy to be named, however they asked for details of ongoing issues for their daughters not to be included in this story. 

Defending another

In 2016, a number of students organised a bullying incident online. During lunch, as several girls were debating who would attack their target first and “punch her braces through her teeth”, they grabbed the victim by her hair.

Another student stepped in, punching the girl who held the victim by the hair. The girl who intervened was the daughter of Michelle Ashby, the mother who has been campaigning for years to end the bullying and improve the school culture.

Ashby’s daughter had not been involved in organising the fight, and before the victim’s hair had been grabbed, she had tried to defuse the situation in a non-violent way. 

Stepping in resulted in her being punched several times in the head and body, some hair ripped out and an earring torn from her ear.

The fight happened at 1.50pm. Michelle Ashby heard nothing about it until 3.20pm when she was called by the school and told her daughter had been involved in a fight. Ashby said she was told her daughter had a sore ear and her hair had been pulled.

“Her friends that were there had been called into the office to make a statement and were all told they were not allowed to tell their parents at all what had happened.”

Permission to call her mother had been denied three times, the girl said. 

In the time between the fight and her mother arriving, the school offered her daughter arnica and Panadol, allowed her to wash blood from her face and throw clumps of loose hair in the bin. She was made to write a statement about the fight.

Medical help was not sought, and the police were not notified until 8pm.

By the next morning Ashby daughter’s head hurt badly. She told her mother she’d been hit in the head about 10 times. This was the first time Ashby knew of these blows. A trip to the doctor raised concerns of concussion.

Fifteen written reports

Jacqui George said concussion was also a factor in an incident involving her own daughter.

“I was at work and she rang me crying her eyes out, saying ‘Mummy, help me. All I could hear were these people saying: ‘I’m going to kill you, you fucking bitch’.”

George rang the school receptionist, got in her car and drove to the school.

By the time she got there, her daughter had been removed by a school dean, who allegedly told her not to tell her mother about what happened, George said. 

“I asked where [my daughter] was, and she said ‘No, you stay away’.

“She wouldn’t let me near my daughter.”

Eventually George did take her daughter home. She said a senior staff member told her it was some of the worst violence he had seen at the school. George said the school offered no medical help at the time.

“They pulled her hair. They hit her head against a wall. She had bruises on her.”

In the early hours of the following morning her daughter vomited and was taken to hospital where George she was diagnosed with secondary concussion. She took a week off school to recover.

“Her friends that were there had been called into the office to make a statement and were all told they were not allowed to tell their parents at all what had happened.”

The bully was stood down from school for three days. George said the school told her it could not guarantee the safety of her daughter, but started segregating her during break times. 

“The girl that hit her, when she got back to school was allowed to waltz around at lunchtime and interval and [my daughter] was the one that was made to sit in the classroom by herself.”

George’s daughter had been bullied at the school for about 18 months before the physical assault. She had informed the school of the bullying and estimates she wrote and submitted 15 reports to the school about what she was experiencing.

“The dean would say she would catch up with [the bully]. Sometimes she would, sometimes she wouldn’t. She would say ‘I think you are taking it the wrong way’.”

The parents said they made a formal complaint to the Board of Trustees, which George said she felt was brushed off.

“As far as they were concerned it was fine what the school had done.”

Email ignored

Complaints about bullying were also made to the school in the case of Rochelle Graham and her daughter. In 2016, one email from Graham to a teacher was responded to, but an email to the dean received no response. 

“I rang the college and wanted to speak to the dean because the whole situation was getting out of hand really fast. Basically, nobody from Nelson College for Girls contacted me.”

Things between her daughter and a group of students escalated.

One morning she received a text message from her daughter asking to be picked up from school because “six girls are going to jump me at the next break”.

Graham rang the school.

“I explained to the receptionist what had happened, how I tried to communicate with the school and hadn’t had any contact from the dean on these occasions and now I’m coming in to pick up my daughter because physically I need to remove my daughter for her own protection.”

She said she also tried to get hold of the principal but was told she was busy.

Graham rushed to the school to remove her daughter before anything could happen.

The dean apologised for not responding to the email, telling Graham they had not had time to because of their teaching responsibilities. Graham accepts this as likely.

“It was quite clear to me that the dean role was too large for the dean to do their job properly. It looks like to me, because they spend all their time teaching – when do they have time to be a Dean?”

Graham requested her daughter be in a different class to the bullies but was told her daughter would be the one to shift class, not the bully.

“It didn’t feel the consequences were going down on the right person.

“I think where Girls College failed my daughter was in the first instance they didn’t contact me when I was trying to reach out for help for my daughter, and not just the first time, the third time and the outcome.”

She decided to remove her daughter from the school and transition forms were signed within two days.

Graham said she would welcome the opportunity to talk with Cathy Ewing, the Nelson College for Girls principal, to share how what happened has affected her family.

The exodus

Not far from Nelson College for Girls is Nayland College. Graham said when she enrolled her daughter there, she was told the 30 students from Nelson College had moved to Nayland in one term.

Nayland College said it’s had 68 enrolments in total from Nelson College for Girls and since 2016. It confirmed 30 students arrived in one term. All of the parents Newsroom spoke to whose daughters shifted to Nayland are full of praise for the school and the support their children have received there.

Ashby suggests the number of students leaving Nelson College for Girls over the last few years is close to 135. Some went to Nayland College, some to Waimea or Garin College and some left the area completely, she said. 

Published statistics show Nelson College for Girls’ 2018 school roll is the lowest it’s been.

Nelson College for Girls principal Ewing wouldn’t provide comment on the school roll, or any of the claims Newsroom raised other than to say: “The information with which you have been provided is not correct.”

When asked to clarify what claims were inaccurate she failed to respond.

She said the school has contacted the police and Netsafe to resolve the previous publication of inaccurate information about the school and staff, and to prevent further instances of it.

She would not speak about specific incidents.

“It is our school policy not to make public comment on any student matters to ensure we protect the privacy of our young people and it is not in their interests for us to do so.”

The school has a procedure related to bullying and harassment which Ewing said was last updated in November 2017.

The procedure states students who write bullying incident reports will be spoken to within 24 hours and the person accused of bullying will be asked to write a report of the event. If it’s a single incident, a warning will be issued and parents informed. Efforts will be made to “modify the behaviour” of the bully. Persistent bullies will face “serious disciplinary behaviour”.

“Nelson College for Girls ensures that all matters of student wellbeing and safety are dealt with promptly and properly, and in accordance with all Ministry of Education and other legal requirements. We have in place appropriate Board of Trustees’ policies and procedures with which we ensure compliance, and which are available to the school community.”

The long campaign

Ashby, whose daughter was beaten after intervening in a bullying incident, “just wants justice”.

While most would have given up the fight long ago, Ashby has continued to raise the issue. Part of her concern is the risk other children will go through what her daughter did, and the result will be worse. The other driving force is injustice.

The school suspended her daughter over the incident as she was the person who threw the first punch. Ashby believes this is unfair and maintains her actions were defensive. 

A Board of Trustees suspension hearing concluded her daughter could return to school with no conditions. Despite this, her daughter was issued a red ‘punishment’ card.

She wants her daughter’s name cleared and she wants the school’s handling of the event scrutinised.

The correct process for Ashby to go through would be to submit a formal complaint to the Board of Trustees. If she’s unhappy with the outcome, she’s then entitled to take it up with the Ombudsman.

Ashby maintains she did send an email of complaint to the board but only got a response from the principal on Cathy Ewing’s personal email address. She’s now lost access to the email account, so this can’t be verified.

She has complained to Worksafe, the Education Review Office, Netsafe, the Ministry of Education and sent letters to ministers and recent emails to the Board of Trustees.

Worksafe’s response is that due to limited resources it needs to focus on only the most serious notifications, such as an amputation of a limb. It advised the school to self-manage the situation.

The Education Review Office is due to review Nelson College for Girls this year. As part of the review it said the school’s complaints and disciplinary processes would be checked to ensure they are sound.

Other parents have moved on. With their children still dealing with serious ongoing issues and now in schools where they are well-cared for, taking complaints made to the Board of Trustees on to the Ombudsman is not high on their priority lists.

Ashby worries bullying at the school will eventually lead to tragedy.

“Someone said to me today, ‘it’s going to take a beating, a murder or a child to commit suicide’.”

She believes the school has many good points, but questions its management.

“There are some amazing teachers there. It’s an amazing school. The education is fabulous, the teachers are fabulous, the sports are amazing, the opportunities are endless. The problem is at the top.”

Self-governing schools

Nelson College for Girls is a state school overseen by the Board of Trustees.

The Ministry of Education’s deputy secretary sector enablement and support Katrina Casey said school boards are responsible for ensuring the safety of children in their school.

“Bullying in any form is unacceptable and while schools are self–governing and responsible for providing a safe physical and emotional place for students we all have a role to play.

“Since 2016 we’ve been approached by two parents who’ve had students at Nelson College for Girls with concerns about their daughters being bullied. We know that these situations were distressing for both the students and their families.”

Casey said the ministry told one unhappy parent to follow the school’s complaint process, and then escalate concerns to the Ombudsman, who could provide an independent investigation.

“We are satisfied that the school has systems and processes in place to manage complaints from parents.”

When asked whether the ministry has any mechanism to identify and investigate schools who lose large numbers of students, Casey said any significant changes would be discussed with the school.

“Nelson College for Girls has both gained from, and lost students to, other schools in the Nelson region.”

Ashby is considering filing a formal complaint with the school board. She said she and her daughter have forgiven the bullies.

“It’s the adults who were responsible for their duty of care we want prosecuted.”

Where to get help:

Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP)

Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email or online chat

What’s Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds). Phone counselling is available Monday to Friday, midday–11pm and weekends, 3pm–11pm. Online chat is available from 5pm–11pm 7 days a week, including all public holidays.

Kidsline – 0800 54 37 54 (0800 kidsline) for young people up to 18 years of age. Open 24/7.

If you are in crisis, call 111, go to your local ED or phone your local mental health crisis team – numbers can be found here.

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