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Education Law Articles - Coronial Inquests

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School Rugby Safety

A coronial inquest into the death of 16 year old Kundayi Chiundiza, a student at St Andrew’s Cathedral School in Sydney, from injuries sustained in a school rugby game has released its findings. Emil Ford Lawyers appeared for the School. It was pleasing to note that the Coroner did not find any fault on the part of the School or its staff in their treatment and care for Kundayi after the incident or in their general approach to rugby policies and procedures.

When examining the School’s involvement in the tragedy, the Coroner investigated a number of issues:

  •  Was the tackle Kundayi sustained dangerous and/or illegal? There was expert evidence that the tackle was a dangerous shoulder charge. It is important to note that there was clearly no intention or malice on the part of the boy who tackled Kundayi and his death was in no way the boy’s fault or responsibility. All teachers who gave evidence agreed that ultimately it was the referee’s role to decide and rule on whether a tackle was illegal or dangerous. The referee decided it was not. Even if he had thought it illegal or dangerous, at most, he may have awarded a penalty kick.
  • Was Kundayi playing in the correct division? School boys’ rugby should be divided into teams based on the age and skill levels of the players. In the more junior divisions adjustments can be made to ensure there is no great disparity in the weight of the children participating. In the open level, a player who was 16 years old and turning 17 was permitted to play in the 16 years division if he weighed less than 65 kg. It was found that Kundayi was playing in an appropriate division.
  • Was Kundayi’s care at the sports ground adequate? Kundayi’s trainer assessed his injuries on the field and assisted him from the field when it was obvious he was unable to continue playing. Kundayi’s trainer and the School’s head of sport then treated Kundayi on the sideline. Both teachers held first aid certificates and attended to Kundayi’s injury without delay. The Coroner considered that the treatment Kundayi received at the sports ground was appropriate and caring.
  • How was the communication between teachers and ambulance officers? There is much evidence available of Kundayi’s symptoms after the injury. These symptoms clearly appeared in the notes taken by the ambulance officers. The Coroner therefore found that the teachers had adequately communicated Kundayi’s symptoms to the ambulance officers.

Injury is an unfortunate consequence of contact sports such as Rugby Union. The Coroner was satisfied that those with the necessary expertise had gone to great lengths to introduce what seem to be appropriate safety guidelines.

David Ford has delivered a paper on School Sport and the Law at a seminar organised by the University of New South Wales. He repeated it in Darwin at the ANZELA Annual Conference. The paper can be found.  Follow this link to David's School Sport and the Law paper.

Learning from tragedy

A coronial enquiry in 2010 into the suicide of a 14 year old boy has released its recommendations for change to the Minister for Education and Training, the NSW Parliament and the Minister for Police, highlighting the fact that the responsibility for preventing such tragedies is not just that of the teachers but also the wider community.

Alex Wildman was the victim of physical and verbal bullying at two different schools and, shortly before his death, the victim of cyber bullying as well. He was physically assaulted and called names to his face. He was the subject of hurtful and spiteful comments on various MySpace pages.

The Coroner made many detailed recommendations as a result of the enquiry. Those made to the Department of Education and Training included:

  • schools of 500+ students should have a full time school counsellor;
  • schools should have a dedicated email address, text message and/or chat room account or number where students and parents can report incidents of bullying or harassment (and the existence of the facility should be well advertised);
  • where students transfer from one high school to another and have previously seen a school counsellor, a compulsory meeting should be held by senior staff to discuss whether anything in the counselling file and/or general file suggests the need for the new student to be counselled;
  • where students transfer from one high school to another and have not previously seen a school counsellor, a meeting should happen as above to discuss whether anything in the general student file suggests that the student may benefit from counselling;
  • when anything suggests the need for the student to be counselled, the student must see the school counsellor;
  • policies should be revised to provide practical and clear guidance to senior school staff as to the circumstances in which police should be called to deal with:
    (i) incidents of physical assaults involving students which either occur on school grounds or which come to the notice of the senior staff and;
    (ii) threats, intimidation or harassment by students over telephones or via the internet (‘cyber bullying’).

Those policies should provide clear guidelines as to when contacting the police is mandatory (such as serious physical harm or serious cases of cyber bullying).

Those policies should clearly inform senior staff that police officers are best placed to investigate the origin of online and telephone threats and that police officers will not automatically charge the student but will consider formal warnings, cautions or merely making a record of the incident.

All schools should consider these recommendations carefully so that tragedies such as the death of Alex Wildman are avoided.

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