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School shootings rarely happen in NZ – but we’ve got nothing to be smug about

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New Zealand might not have school shootings; what we do have is a shameful record on child abuse, murder, depression and anxiety.

When a leading United States politician blamed violent online games and music for his country’s latest mass school shooting, our Privacy Commissioner, John Edwards, had an apt response. “New Zealand here,” he said on Twitter. “We get all your video games and movies. But we don’t massacre children in their classrooms. It must be something else.”

We can indeed rejoice that youngsters here cannot easily, if at all, lay hands on automatic weapons, and that mass shootings are extremely rare anywhere, let alone in schools. And we can deplore yet again the deadly hold, not known here, that the US gun lobby has over politicians. But that’s where our comfort zone ends.

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New Zealand schools are increasingly resorting to such measures as barbed-wire-topped fences and emergency “lockdown” procedures as threats to student safety increase. The reality is that our young people face grievous dangers to their physical and mental well-being. That being shot by a disturbed classmate isn’t one of them is too low a benchmark for complacency, considering how many of our young never even reach school because of our shameful record on child abuse and murder. Every New Zealander can recite the names of at least some of the babies and toddlers tortured and killed by their own family members. Even though data is hard to compare internationally, New Zealand children and teenagers are much more likely to die of abuse than those across the Tasman.

Yet far too often the systems the state has set up to identify and protect vulnerable children have failed. Illustrating the chronic dysfunction in parts of our welfare safety net, a Family Court judge recently demanded explanations from a Masterton Oranga Tamariki/Ministry for Children manager about the near-three-month delay of an urgent report on appropriate care and protection for a young girl. The judge’s inquiries highlighted serious shortages in Wairarapa’s social-worker staffing and experience. The little girl’s lawyer said another of her child clients had seen eight different social workers in the past year.

The Chief Social Worker has just formally confirmed that a 15-year-old suicide victim was failed by several people responsible for his care; they knew of his intention to commit suicide but took no urgent preventive action.

Our children are at higher risk than ever of depression and anxiety. If only making them turn their phones off would solve the problem, but the causes are complex and not just the work of cyber-bullies and trolls. Apprehension about the future is now not just normal but entirely rational. Students are learning that even the well-educated may not get a secure, adequately paid career or afford a home. Previous generations’ fears of war or nuclear annihilation have been replaced by anxiety about the potential non-viability of the planet itself. Climate change is not just a “might happen” but something that is happening.

Suicide and self-harm, once rare, are now commonplace. Our society is also sending the young increasingly mixed messages about drugs. Parliament gave them the dangerously erroneous message that certain synthetic drugs were safe when it affirmed their till-then loophole status as legal in 2013 – legislation since tightened after public concern. While the lobby to decriminalise marijuana is on track to gaining majority popular support, the adults leading it seem content to gloss over the medically demonstrated harm that even this most benign of recreational drugs does to the development of young people’s brains.

Further imperilling their brain development is the teacher shortage – at crisis point in Auckland and other high-cost-of-living districts, and worsening. Schools must resort to hiring underskilled teachers, some with issues of literacy and fluency, just to have a nominally qualified warm body in front of a classroom. Many of these teachers cannot possibly enable students to achieve their potential. We face the inevitability now of young people taking legal action to challenge the patent inadequacy of the education they are offered. Despite a focus on some future redesign of our education system, there is not a peep from the Government on how to get enough appropriately qualified teachers. Yet for most young people, school is their one shot at getting sufficient education to give them decent life options.

Just because we tend not to lose our children and teens in batches, but one at a time, we can no longer be complacent about the many ways we are failing them.

This editorial was first published in the March 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.