FRESH AIR

Apparent mass amnesia at Brighton Secondary College hearing

Dec 6, 2022 | Tammy Reznik

Image: Twitter
Image: Twitter

On Friday November 25, the Federal Court in Melbourne was open for the final day of submissions in the hearing of five former students of Brighton Secondary College (BSC), Joel and Matt Kaplan, Liam Arnold-Levy, Guy Cohen and Zack Snelling, who are suing the school and the state of Victoria over what they allege were years of antisemitic bullying and discrimination at the government school between the years 2013 and 2020.

The five ex-students claimed to have been the victims of antisemitic harassment, both verbal and physical, as well as threats to their safety on and off school grounds and via online platforms. They allege that the school, its principal and some teachers tolerated a culture of antisemitism and were negligent in their duty to protect their students, thus depriving them of their right to safety and to an education.

During the final week of submissions, the school called a number of the final witnesses, including current and former teachers, the current principal as well as the ex-principal, members of the school’s “wellbeing” team, student managers and “expert witnesses” in areas of racism and human rights.

I was privileged to have attended two full days in court – two days out of the many that the applicants have spent providing their own gruelling evidence, since all the way back in June.

The courtroom was packed – standing room only, evidence that this is a case which has struck at the heart of the Melbourne Jewish community and shocked residents of the bayside region, many of whom had some interaction with the local government school. Three of the five applicants were in attendance, dressed impeccably, and apparently carrying themselves in a truly humble manner. They did not lose their cool, even on hearing the denials from staff about the numerous complaints that they had made over their time at the school, and were unperturbed even when the presiding Judge, Justice Debra Mortimer, was forced to castigate members of the gallery who let out flabbergasted gasps.

Whilst the students’ claims have been formally denied by all respondents, it seemed as though the witnesses for the school had a fairly recognisable scripted response when pressed to recall things like swastika graffiti, or really lurid and detailed racists slurs – some of which were alleged to have taken place when some of the applicants were as young as 12 or 13. It appeared almost as though the staff body – past and present – had all fallen victim to some kind of mass amnesia. But it didn’t take long for cracks to appear in the veneer of these well-rehearsed denials.

The team representing the applicants, led by barrister Adam Butt, managed to unravel the evidence of a number of staff over the final week of proceedings, exposing not only holes in the school’s version of events, but an apparent absolute failure of process in terms of the school’s mechanisms for dealing with overt and covert antisemitism. His cross-examination made it appear the school elevated support for the LGBTQI + community above obvious and damaging racial discrimination happening in the school corridors and classrooms – literally under their noses.

In the first part of the hearing in June, allegations of negligence and failures to act to stop or modify the behaviour of offending pupils were made.

The final week of the trial in late November was devoted to the final tranche of the respondents’ witnesses. Monday’s first witness for the respondents, one Ms Trin, a current teacher at BSC, had been one of the school’s student managers during the period in question. When asked about her impression of the alleged antisemitism that the boys had since reported, including the swastika graffiti that had been reported on lockers and etched into desks – her only recollection was that yes, the English graphic novel MAUS, which the class was reading, has on its cover images of swastikas, but that she had no other memory of swastikas drawn either on the walls, lockers, desks or personal items of students.

When cross-examined about the testimony that had been given by applicant Matt Kaplan about incidents in her classroom, Trin denied any that any such reports were made by the applicant to her. She said that if a complaint had come to her, she would have been quick to act, on “any complaints”, insinuating that these were not made.

Evidence of another of the applicants, Zak Snelling, who alleged amongst other things to have received actually threatening messages via the app Snapchat, such as, “You gonna die” and “They want your head” was put to her. The teacher agreed that she had been aware of the threats and that one of the students who was allegedly involved was a problematic student, A, who had already received 20-plus suspensions from the school. There appeared to be much more detailed record keeping and concern for this student’s welfare, as an absentee student with a difficult family background, than for victims of his behaviour such as Kaplan and Snelling. When asked why, despite evidence that these repeat offenders, such as A, had displayed threatening behaviour, the school had not considered expulsion, the answer was that it was because the threats and assaults happened outside of school.

The next witness was Ms Julie Podbury, Principal from 1984-2012, who could not recall any direct complaints to her from the applicants. She claimed that she kept scrupulous records, so that anything reported to her would have been in her notes, but then went on to explain (rather angrily) that she would not be able to go back to review these records, as they had since been “destroyed” by the school. In fact, throughout her testimony, Podbury returned to this statement that there were no longer any of her records available – and the dearth of this evidence appeared to go a long way toward inadvertently throwing the school and its processes into question.

Podbury also failed to recall the students’ complaints, as much time had since passed, though was sure to clarify that these may well have gone directly to the deputy principal at the time, Richard Minack (now the current BSC principal) and there was a possibility that these never actually made it to her office. She gave a sense, or rather an insinuation, that she had been shut out of her own school’s process.

Interestingly, reports had been made about some of incidents in the trial to the 2020 Commission of Inquiry into Antisemitism in schools, commissioned by Victoria’s education department and led by Louise Dickinson of Worklogic, to which Podbury had given evidence. This inquiry had made numerous recommendations, but the ex-principal had some trouble recalling either the reports of the incidents at that inquiry or recommendations that resulted.

Podbury was also questioned about the obvious attrition rate of Jewish staff and students over the past ten years. “At my time”, she claimed, almost 40% of students identified themselves as Jewish at one point, while today there are only a handful. When she was pressed during cross-examination, it was implied that BSC is no longer seen as a safe place for Jewish students to attend.

Applicant Liam Arnold Levy, who left the school citing on his exit “antisemitism” as the reason, claims to have been taunted continuously throughout years 7 and 8 and into year 9. He recalled comments such as lets “pre-heat the oven” and having had money thrown at his feet. He was at the time the only BSC student wearing a kippah, and this was allegedly used as a taunt and often ripped from his head and thrown to the ground. Levy also reported being held at knifepoint in a toilet, whilst being threatened with antisemitic taunts. Somehow the former principal was unable to retrieve any the memory of this incident as well.

Levy later returned to BSC with the principal of his new school, Leibler Yavneh College, hoping for some kind of apology, but BSC reportedly offered nothing. One would imagine that such a meeting would be rather hard to forget, yet Podbury said she had zero recollection of it.

Yet when asked finally, “If Liam Arnold Levy stated that he felt unsafe as a Jewish student at the school – would this be severe failing of the school?” Podbury did give a singular answer – “yes”.

Another witness for the respondents, one Ms Drechsler, the-then student manager in year 10, (which included Matt Kaplan,) was asked if she could recall the presence of swastikas in the classroom. She replied that she did not recall any such graffiti as there was no graffiti at the school. Yet she proceeded to contradict herself in the next series of answers, where she acknowledged the school had considerable graffiti like any other school.

In response to a major complaint by student Matt Kaplan, who had been the butt of antisemitic abuse by another student in class, Drechsler claimed that she was unaware of it because the incident was alleged to have occurred on a Friday and she was never made aware of it as she didn’t work on Fridays.

According to the “Chronicle” records, which was the method of record keeping at the school for any incident of this nature, Matt was not referred to the school’s “wellbeing” counsellors over this incident, whilst his abuser in fact was. One thing Ms Drechsler did seem to remember was that Matt Kaplan had a” strong victim mentality” but she appeared to have no memory nor records of reports that he was ever victimised.

The head of school wellbeing, Mr Mangol, seemed to have an odd interpretation of what could be seen as antisemitic or offensive for a Jewish student. He refused to acknowledge any presence of antisemitic graffiti, despite it having been witnessed by at least 30 students who gave evidence to that effect. Mangol testified about a speech delivered by Principal Minak which had been designed to ease the minds of students in that period where there had been an obvious rise in racial and antisemitic feeling at the school. Principal Minack famously used the opportunity to talk about his father, who had been an active Nazi but was “a good man”. Mangol did not see a direct correlation between this statement and concerns felt by Jewish students. It wasn’t clear to him why this could be seen as inflammatory or offensive to Jewish students.

The five applicants, the Kaplan brothers, Levy, Snelling and Cohen, have maintained their composure over a rather protracted trial in the face of repeated denials from BSC staff, something for which Justice Mortimer commended them. The case is due to wrap up in February 2023 following closing arguments.

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