A group of women surround a boy in a wheelchair in front of a fenced building

Walgett Community College parents demand NSW Education Minister acts on school violence

Parents have confronted the NSW Education Minister during a visit to Walgett in the state’s north-west, asking for an intervention into long-term problems at the high school.

The group, made up of parents and former students of Walgett Community College, say an independent investigation is critical to finally stop student violence and poor educational outcomes, as well as the constant turnover of principals and staff.

They held up signs with messages including “United Walgett stands, divided Walgett fails” and “Lack of knowledge, bypass this college.”

Community members also want changes to zoning rules to allow their children to attend other schools.

‘Viciously assaulted’ at school

Parent Lisa Smith became emotional as she told the ABC about her experiences at the outback school.

The parents called for an end to the Education Department’s Connected Communities program.(ABC News: Olivia Ralph)

She said her 13-year-old daughter had been “viciously assaulted in the schoolyard by another child” before a video of the incident was posted on social media.

Ms Smith said her other 14-year-old daughter’s mental health has suffered severely after attending the school, and that she was “heartbroken” after being forced to send her seven hours away to be educated elsewhere.

“We went to visit family … and my 14-year-old told me if I bring her back to this school she will hurt herself or kill herself,” she said.

“I now don’t have my daughter in my care because she cannot go to school here.”

She felt her children were not safe at the high school, and wanted urgent support for Walgett children.

“The majority of people in this town send their children to boarding school because they can’t risk their children’s safety,” Ms Smith said.

“I am over being told my daughter is resilient. I know she is.

“She shouldn’t have to be resilient to attend school and get an education. When is this going to stop?”

Blurred faces on an image of students fighting at a school
Videos of students fighting at Walgett Community College have been circulated on social media.(Supplied)

Low enrollment numbers

More than 5,000 people live in the Walgett local government area in the state’s north-west but only 119 enrolled at the high school last year.

Three women stand in a circle talking on a sidewalk
NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell speaks to protesters outside Walgett Community College.(ABC News: Olivia Ralph)

Only 3 per cent of those students attended school at least 90 per cent of the time, and just four students completed Year 12 in 2020.

NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell held a closed meeting with Department of Education staff and stakeholders Wednesday evening, which was followed by a meeting with four community members.

Ms Mitchell spoke with the small group of protesters outside the school about their concerns and planned to meet with police and the local council today.

Going to school ‘traumatic’

Former student Felicity Forbes attended the community meeting to tell the minister what it was like to live through a “lockdown” triggered by violence at Walgett Community College.

A teenage girl looks at the camera while holding a protest sign next to a group of protesters
Former Walgett student Felicity Forbes says she wants the cycle of violence she experienced to stop.(ABC News: Olivia Ralph)

The 16-year-old has been studying at home via distance education after leaving the school due to the negative impact on her mental health.

“Within the first week of Year 7, I experienced my first panic attack,” Felicity said.

“A student grabbed a stick and smashed through glass to get to another student.”

The student spoke to Ms Mitchell directly at the protest, asking her to let her travel the 150-kilometre round trip to attend high school at Lightning Ridge, after her application was rejected in May.

“Studying at home is isolating,” she told the ABC afterwards.

“I’ve definitely fallen into some kind of depression a couple of times because I’m not talking to anyone.

“I’m alone by myself. I’ve lost connection with all my friends.”

A mother and daughter stand in front of a school entrance with a protest sign
Bec Trindall says her daughter Felicity still suffers from anxiety and depression after attending Walgett.(ABC News: Olivia Ralph)

Felicity added that she and her sister could not do the work they were given when first starting distance education “because it was stuff we haven’t even learned because this school hasn’t taught us”.

The teenager said children deserved to feel safe at school.

“No kid should go through this on an almost daily basis because that’s just traumatic,” Felicity said.

“You don’t want to put any fear in a kid that they could be hurt.”

Minister gives reassurances

Minister Sarah Mitchell reassured the community that she was invested in their children’s future, and came to talk to them directly so she could understand the issues.

“I know there’s a long history at the school,” she said.

“I know there’s many views in the community about what’s working and what’s not working.”

Walgett parents demand more school options with ongoing concerns over trouble-plagued local community college
Traumatized students are leaving school to learn from home or leave town altogether.(ABC Western Plains: Lucy Thackray)

Strengthening TAFE’s partnership with the school to improve employment prospects and student engagement was among options the minister was exploring.

“I’ll be catching up with some of my colleagues about my visit next week and thinking about how we can make some of the things people are asking for come to a fruition,” Ms Mitchell said.

“I certainly gave an undertaking to everybody I caught up with yesterday that we’ll be back in touch and continue to work with them and see what we can do in terms of some of the improvement and suggestions put forward.”

A group of people stand with protest signs outside a school building
The protesters wait outside Walgett Community College as the minister meets stakeholders inside.(ABC News: Olivia Ralph)