HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [9.57 pm]: I rise tonight to raise some concerns about the Minister for Education and Training’s response to questions I asked recently about the use of restraint in schools. From the outset, I want to say that I recognise this is a really important issue, which is precisely why I have been asking questions about it. I acknowledge that the physical restraint of a student by school staff in some circumstances may be both necessary and appropriate. Of course, I have to acknowledge that the safety of students and teachers in schools needs to be absolutely paramount and that the best interests of children and staff are the primary motivator when we are talking about the use of restraint.
We know that restraint should never be used as a convenience, punishment or means of coercion because restraint is a serious response. We also know that, particularly for some children with disability, it can have a lasting impact. I particularly note that children with autism may find that being touched, let alone restrained, is very traumatic, and the use of restraint can impact their engagement with school. We also know that children who have difficulty communicating verbally often communicate through their behaviour, so we have to make sure we are listening and responding in an appropriate manner. I believe we need to work towards reducing the use of restraint, and there are a number of ways we can do that. We need to make sure that our teachers are better supported and that there are appropriate numbers of skilled staff, as well as making sure people are appropriately trained in techniques such as de-escalation and assistance to be able to address behavioural issues. This means that it is really critical that we have transparency and accountability around the use of restraint. It is essential that every time restraint is utilised in our school system, the incident is documented.
I submitted question on notice 1680 to the Minister for Education and Training on 9 October this year, which was answered on 6 November. In that question I sought three sets of statistics and some general procedural advice. I have some serious concerns with the statistical information that was provided to me. In part (d) of my question I wanted to know how often students are restrained in schools. By that, I meant the number of incidents per year. In part (e) of my question I wanted to know how many individual students are restrained each year. For example, the sort of information I sought was that if one school has 10 incidents of restraint in a calendar year, does that represent one student who has been restrained 10 times or 10 different students being restrained only once? From my question it is clear that those two parts are about all students, including those who might be restrained because of a mental health, a substance abuse or a serious behavioural issue. It includes, but was never limited to, students with disability.
For the sake of brevity I will not go through all the answers. Although the question included 2015 to 2018, I will use just the figures that were provided for 2017. In the answer that I received, the minister advised that in 2017 students were physically restrained by school staff on 1 317 occasions. Part (f), the final part of my question, sought the figures for how often students with disability are restrained. It was a specific part of the question. The minister provided a comprehensive answer to this question and included a list by school for each of the years 2015 to 2018 detailing the number of occasions students with disability were physically restrained by school staff. In 2017, students with disability were restrained on 817 occasions. I thank the minister for that information. My concern is that the figures provided on the number of individual students who were physically restrained and the number of occasions that students with disability were restrained were exactly the same across all five years; that is, the same totals were given as the answers to part (e) and part (f). For example, students with disability were restrained on 817 occasions in 2017, and during that year, 817 individual students were physically restrained, including those who do not have a registered disability. I have to say that this seems highly unlikely. Surely, there is no chance of those figures aligning every single year over a five-year period. I wondered whether the minister misunderstood the nature of part (e) of my question, so after the answer had been received, my office emailed the minister’s office on 8 November seeking clarification of the numbers provided. Although the email was acknowledged, my office did not receive a response—even by 22 November, which was last Thursday. I gave the minister an opportunity to correct or clarify her response during question time. The answer I got was very dismissive! It noted only —
The Department of Education advises that in the table in part (e), the heading “Number of incidents” should have been “Number of students”. The data provided is correct.
My concern is that the response provided by the minister indicates that either due diligence is not being exercised to ensure that the right information is being provided in answer to parliamentary questions or that the only children being restrained or having use of restraint documented are children with a registered disability. I am sure members will agree that neither of these options are particularly palatable. I am hoping that the Minister for Education and Training can at some point—hopefully soon—advise which of these two options is correct, because either of them would be of great concern.