Line in the sand

We need to talk about sex. And consent. And respect for girls and women. Journalist Monica Crouch looks at national events and what they mean for teachers.

What started as a straightforward question posed on Instagram by former Kambala student Chanel Contos rapidly morphed into a petition that collected thousands of allegations of sexual assault of girls in Sydney independent schools. The assaults are alleged to have been perpetrated by the boys of these schools.

Anyone who’s read even a handful of the 3500 responses in this petition knows just how harrowing it is. Unsurprisingly, the girls are calling for better consent education.

“I have lived in three different countries and I have never spoken to anyone who has experienced rape culture the way me and my friends had growing up in Sydney among private schools,” Contos said in an interview.

IEU NSW/ACT Branch Secretary Mark Northam says the petition is nothing short of “an inflection point in history”. So where do we go from here?

Groundswell gains momentum

NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell commended the girls and young women for speaking up, and several principals have spoken out in the media, including Wenona Principal, Briony Scott and former Principal of The King’s School, Tim Hawkes.

“It happens within schools, between schools, and between schools and the community,” Scott wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald on February 24.

“Sexual assault is a cultural issue – not a school sector, or a ‘it would never happen here’, or ‘but my kid is a good kid’ issue. That someone’s abuse would be categorised by what they wore, how much they had to drink, or what school they went to is profoundly not the point. That it happens at all? This is the point.”

In subsequent weeks, women and their allies, rocked by this petition, allegations of rape in Parliament House and separate assault accusations against the Attorney-General, Christian Porter, protested in their tens of thousands at “March4Justice” rallies throughout Australia.

Some 8000 converged on Parliament House and 10,000 at Sydney’s Town Hall (pictured above). Representatives from the IEU attended both.

Labor MPs Tanya Plibersek, Anthony Albanese, Penny Wong and Sharon Claydon led a delegation from Parliament House to join the protesters. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and the Minister for Women, Marise Payne, declined to attend this watershed event, at which Brittany Higgins, the political staffer who was allegedly assaulted in Parliament House in March 2019, addressed the assembled.

The protests made headlines around the world. Finally, consent, dignity, justice and respect for women are at the centre of the national – even global – conversation.

Teachers and support staff saving lives

“If you ever want to know what’s actually going on, ask any teacher, especially those who are trained in wellbeing,” Wenona Principal Briony Scott wrote.

“We are the ones who are desperately picking up the broken hearts, trying to hold lives together, and doing our best to remind young people that everything will be OK.”

Teachers’ goals, she said, “are to keep young people alive, keep them safe, and keep them educated – in that order”. Support staff too are on the frontlines, triaging the troubled and traumatised.

Northam agrees. “Schools have been grappling with this issue, much of which happens beyond the school gates, for decades,” he said. “It’s time to explore a new approach. It will require greater resources and staffing, particularly school counsellors and allied health professionals, including psychologists.”

Seeking solutions

The Federal Government has said it will launch a new curriculum on respectful relationships, consent, power and abuse. Yet in NSW, a new Personal Development, Health and Physical Education (PDHPE) curriculum for Kindergarten to Year 10 was introduced as recently as 2018, with reinforced content covering respectful relationships and consent. Northam notes it will take a while for its impact to be felt as students progress through high school.

Teachers' goals are to keep young people alive, keep them safe, and keep them educated – in that order.
– Wenona Principal Briony Scott

Northam supports a roundtable with stakeholders from Catholic schools, independent schools and the government sector putting their heads together to generate fresh strategies. “We need a manageable way forward, without all the burden falling on teachers,” he said.

Northam said schools may need to trial a new mechanism, such as a school council, to give students, particularly girls, a stronger voice. Such a mechanism may also serve to give teachers and principals a deeper understanding of students’ attitudes and activities. The Child Safe Standards recommended by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse offer strong guidance.

Scott emphasises that driving this attitudinal shift is not the responsibility of teachers alone. Appearing on the ABC's Q&A on 18 March, Scott came armed with solutions.

“I want the Australian Human Rights Commission to come in and look at adolescents across the board,” she said. “I want them to come up with specific recommendations that we should implement – the responsibility is on adults in our society to step up and make the changes we need.”

Young people learn by example, she wrote in the SMH. As long as abuse and assault are rife in not just countless Australian homes but also allegedly in the highest levels of government – yet very few people are held to account – that is the point.

Boys need to listen and learn

The IEU believes that freedom from gendered violence, in all schools and workplaces, is a human right.

But it's time to shift the focus off girls and women: it's time for men and boys to listen learn and, most importantly, change. A crisis meeting of more than 100 principals from Sydney independent schools held in early March agreed it was time to draw a line in the sand.

One person committed to drawing that line in the sand is former Sydney Swans AFL player Brandon Jack, 26, who attended Oakhill College in Castle Hill and now has a degree in sociology from the University of NSW. Jack gives talks to students about the issues at the very heart of this crisis: masculinity, equality, respect, sex and consent.

In his talk, which he tailors to different age groups, Jack focuses on boys, asking them to rethink definitions of masculinity. He connects with them by sharing stories about himself, particularly from his high school years.

Jack ticks many of the ‘typically male’ boxes: he played professional football; he has plenty of mates; he goes out to bars. “But I also write poetry and I cry in movies – things that guys might hear as ‘sissy stuff’ or ‘feminine stuff’ – but I do these things, so does that mean the definition is wrong or I’m wrong? Or does it mean we don’t have to be a certain kind of male?”

He introduces boys to the notion of “affirmative consent”. “It’s about being able to continually ask another person ‘Is this OK?’ – and if there’s any doubt, then it’s a ‘no’,” he says. Jack also counsels against the use of smartphones and social media to harass girls, as well as the distorting effects of pornography.

Jack has been observing the news cycle around sexual assault for some years now. He has observed that it tends to flare up every six months or so, but recent events have resulted in a sustained period of gendered violence leading the news. While he finds this distressing, he also sees opportunity for change.

“This is one thing we can’t just let be part of the news cycle,” he said. “It has to be part of an education framework moving forward, so that it doesn’t get pushed aside.”

This framework, Jack says, could involve “setting aside an assembly on a certain day to introduce the problem, or start a conversation and keep that conversation going”.

The courageous girls and women who contributed to Contos’s petition have started the conversation. It’s now up to all of us – parents, politicians, teachers, unionists and the broader community – to keep it going.


Read the petition:

Contact Brandon Jack:

Scott, B, Principal of Wenona School, “Schools can’t end the scourge of sexual assault, adults behaving like adults can”, SMH, 24 February 2021,

ABC TV, Q&A, Thursday 18 March

Above Left: Former parliamentary staffer Brittany Higgins addresses March4Justicein Canberra on March 15

Above Right: a protest sign in Canberra

Above top left: ACTU Secretary Sally McManus and President Michele O'Neiladdress the protest in Canberra

Above Bottom Left: a delegation of Labor MPs, including Anthony Albanese, Tanya Plibersekand Sharon Claydon joined the protest

Above Right: some of the 10,000 protesters at Town Hall in Sydney

Above: IEU Organiser Tina Smith (holding flag) joined a convoy of two busloads from Wollongong to Canberra to March4Justice

Protesters called for implementation of all recommendations from the Respect@Work report by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, released in early 2020.

Six reasons the IEU joined March4Justice

  1. Because women comprise 76% of the IEU’s membership in NSW and the ACT and we stand with our members.
  2. Because we support safety, respect, justice, dignity and fairness for all women, everywhere, at all times.
  3. Because women’s rights are human rights, and it’s time the Federal Government implemented recommendations from the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report (2020).
  4. Because it’s time for the Federal Government to ratify International Labour Organization Convention 190 which recognises the right of everyone to a world of work free from violence and harassment, including gender-based violence and harassment.
  5. Because we support strengthening the powers of the Fair Work Commission in relation to gender equality and the establishment of an expert Gender Equality panel within Fair Work.
  6. Because we support strengthening the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (SDA) by empowering and resourcing the Sex Discrimination Commissioner to conduct inquiries, on its own motion, into particular sectors, industries or workplaces.