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Teachers in Queensland are now required by law to report cases of suspected child abuse, thanks to research carried out by Dr Ben Matthews and Dr Kerryann Walsh.
As the third school term commences today (July 9), teachers and principals across all schools in Queensland will be in a better position to assist students whom they suspect have been sexually abused.
Dr Ben Mathews, an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), said recent changes to the Education (General Provisions) Act 2006 mean teachers are now required to report all cases of suspected child sexual abuse to their principals, who in turn are required to give these reports to police.
Dr Mathews said the legislative changes were influenced by a major three-year research project conducted by QUT law and education faculty academics.
"We analysed law, educational policy and teachers' reporting practice nationally and internationally and conducted a survey of teachers in three states," he said.
"We then made recommendations for reform, most of which received bipartisan support in November last year when the Education and Training Legislation Amendment Act 2011 was passed.
"The new Queensland law will give teachers and principals across both state and private education sectors greater clarity in relation to their duty to report suspected child sexual abuse."
Dr Mathews said that under the previous legislation, Queensland's teachers were only required to report cases of suspected child sexual abuse when a school staff member was thought to have perpetrated the abuse.
"Teachers no longer have this limitation imposed on them," he said.
"The old legislation was out of step with most duties under school policies. It was also weaker than legislation in other states and territories.
"There should now be coherency between legislation and school policy. In all cases of suspected child sexual abuse, no matter who the suspected perpetrator may be, the reporting obligation is clear.
"The teacher reports to the principal, and the principal must report to police. In all cases, principals no longer have discretion about whether to forward the teacher's report. They are now required under the legislation to give the teacher's report to police.
"Schools' policies will now align with the legislation. The whole approach is far more unified, simple and coherent, and most important of all, is better able to protect children."
He said the change also enabled more harmonised and efficient training of teachers across the state.
"Teachers deserve to have excellent training to enable them to carry out this important role. Good education plus sound legislation is most likely to lead to effective child protection."
"This is an important advance in child protection in Queensland," said Dr Kerryann Walsh, a senior research fellow in QUT's Faculty of Education and a program leader in QUT's Children and Youth Research Centre.
"All teachers are well placed to detect changes in a child's behaviour. Many teachers have studied child development and have been trained to identify sexual abuse.
"In situations where a child does feel able to tell someone about the abuse, they will often disclose it to their teacher.
"This speaks volumes about the trust a child places in their teacher and our findings showed that teachers embrace this responsibility to help protect abused children."
Dr Mathews said teachers already make a substantial contribution to child protection.
"Our study found that over a three-year period, Queensland teachers detected 16.5 per cent of all cases of sexual abuse of children aged five to 12," he said.
"These teachers perform an incredibly significant service to abused children and the community.
"The evidence from our study, and from overseas, indicates that sound legislation and teacher training, together with effective systemic responses, helps to identify many cases of sexual abuse which otherwise would not come to light.
"Over time, this can even contribute to a real decline in sexual abuse, as has been found in the USA."
Media contact: Rose Trapnell, QUT media team leader, 07 3138 2361 or 0407 585 901 firstname.lastname@example.org