Catherine Delahunty

Salisbury School

by Catherine Delahunty

The Green Party is pleased that Salisbury school for girls with learning disabilities is to remain open for at least another year. We are not attacking other schools or their capacity to keep young people safe from abuse. We are also not the champions of residential schools as a long term model for disabled students. We want safe and effective inclusion of all students in all aspects of the education system. However, we believe that the existence of a single sex residential centre with strong community outreach which empowers girls with learning disabilities has a role to play in the meantime while we work to change the world.

The Green Party is horrified by the sexual abuse statistics relating to young people and children in this country. The abuse rates are bad for girls and boys generally but it is worse for disabled children. There is significant international research that shows that girls with learning disabilities are up to seven times more likely to suffer abuse than non-disabled children of the same age. It has been estimated that 40% of the girls who enrol in their school have already been abused by males in their home environment prior to their enrolment. Sexual abuse can have compounding consequences if victims do not get the right help early on. Salisbury work with these young women to help them regain some confidence and self-determination and a sense of their bodies being their own. This is vital as the loss of personal bodily integrity makes young women very vulnerable, not to any particular group of boys or men but to the world as it is.

Therefore, we think the High Court was correct in stating that the Minister of Education did not take their safety into account. This is not to denigrate Halswell School or any other possible model. I read the testimonies of young women and their families about the value of Salisbury to their ability to participate in community as self-determining citizens. Their lives will work better for the experience Salisbury offers.

Critics of the model need to be heard as well, the old special school model did have a whiff of the ghetto. We need inclusion, but it won’t work for all students without the proper resourcing of support staff and specialists. We have not achieved inclusion until we centrally fund support staff and change attitudes, and that cannot be delayed. In the meantime Salisbury has some time to prove the value that they have to a group of young women from all over the country who can benefit from the experience.

This is not a simple issue. The ability to be honest about sexual abuse and power is often lacking in the debate. And once again the ability of the Minister and the Ministry to listen has been called into question. School closures impact on communities of all kinds and the Minister cannot expect to get away with shallow judgements of risk and value for the education of young people.