An independent school in Far North Queensland has been accused of putting profits ahead of the welfare of students and staff by chasing significant federal funding incentives attached to boarding students from remote Indigenous communities.
- An elder says school too focused on enrolling “cash kids” from remote NT communities
- His criticism has been echoed by staff and others from within the education sector
- The school says it stands for inclusion and accepts applications from remote families in the NT
Djarragun College at Gordonvale, in the southern suburbs of Cairns, has reopened after being closed for two days following a brawl between students, some allegedly armed with metal bars.
The fight on June 20 left a 17-year-old boy in hospital with head injuries.
Parents and staff said the incident was just the latest violent episode and the by-product of a school executive that had failed in providing a duty of care for students and teachers and a safe environment conducive to learning.
But the school executive has defended the way it operates, saying it “provides education and support that no other school can or will”.
Djarragun College is run by Cape York Partnerships and has about 400 students enrolled from prep to year 12.
It also has a boarding facility that caters for young people from remote communities in Queensland and the Northern Territory.
Elder critical of governance
Yarrabah is the nation’s largest discrete Indigenous community with a population of about 4,000 people and is less than 40 kilometres from Djarragun College’s Gordonvale campus.
Percy Neal is a respected Yarrabah Elder and its former mayor.
He said his community once provided a large cohort of day students to the college, but families were increasingly sending their children to other schools in the catchment area due to ongoing issues at Djarragun.
Mr Neal has accused the school executive of failing future generations of First Australians.
“You can’t blame the kids … as an ex-mayor, I’ve sat on [boards] of a lot of Aboriginal companies … the governance is not right,” he said.
School defends funding
Mr Neal said he supported moves to offer educational opportunities for children from remote Northern Territory communities, but believed the school executive was more motivated by money than providing for students.
“The idea is a really good idea, but the governance is bad, it’s terrible,” he said.
Mr Neal, a prominent Aboriginal activist, believed the school had been mixing students from different Indigenous communities in Cape York, the Torres Strait and the Northern Territory without adequate thought for cultural sensitivities.
He said he offered suggestions to school leaders, but was ignored.
“They should have respectable Elders come down from these communities every now and then to have a presence in the school,” he said.
In a statement to the ABC , Djarragun College said Mr Neal “has not requested a meeting with [executive principal] Dr Michael Barton, nor ever met with him, however Dr Barton extends an opportunity to meet to discuss his concerns”.
It also defended its funding arrangements.
“Djarragun as an independent college receives a great deal less in state and federal incentives due to its independent status, despite the level of poverty experienced by the families enrolled,” the statement said.
‘Different laws, different rules’
Mr Neal’s criticisms of Djarragun College echoed comments made by staff and others associated with the school that not enough was being done to build cultural connections, which had resulted in conflict.
“They’re coming from different laws, different rules in their own community … because these kids don’t understand each other, it’s easy to offend another group,” a staff member said.
In its statement, the college said it stood for inclusion and maintained it had various programs in place to address the issues which arose by catering for young people from different language groups and cultural backgrounds.
It said all students were encouraged to live and work together and to leave kinship differences in their communities.
Principal rejects critics’ claims
The ABC made repeated requests to interview Djarragun College’s executive principal Dr Michael Barton, but he declined.
However, in its extensive statement, the college said “internal and external investigations continue into Monday’s incident”.
It said the school worked tirelessly to support students and families through the complexities brought about by chronic disadvantage.
“No-one else picks up kids door to door because these kids are often homeless, or pick up laundry from their homeless families, or delivers food during COVID lockdown, or offer cultural outreach services, or internet connections in remote homes during COVID schooling.”
You can read Djarragun’s statement in full here .