Walgett High School is retreating rapidly since introducing connected communities, critics say

In 2004, a First Nations woman, Vanessa Hickey, told the New York Times that she was forced to homeschool her children due to violence at Walgett Community College.

Nearly 20 years later, the Walgett resident says the problem is “100 times worse”.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains images and names of deceased persons.

“Some of our children go to school and don’t get their grade 10 certificate, but get a criminal record,” Ms Hickey said.

“Nobody in the education department cares – they’ve been failing our kids for decades now.

“Not just these children, but my grandmother, my mother and myself and many other families.

Ms Hickey says the police presence at the school kicks in after the tragic death of her 17-year-old cousin, TJ Hickey, in 2004.(Provided)

Ms Hickey spoke to The Times two months after her 17-year-old cousin, Thomas J Hickey, died in a police chase in Sydney.

She felt that the conditions in which Thomas grew up and the lack of support from the authorities put him on the path to tragedy.

A 1968 newspaper article with the title
The problems at Walgett High School have been the subject of media attention for many years. This news article was published in 1968.(ABC News: Gary-Jon Lysaght)

Ms Hickey is distressed by what she says has been a constant police presence at the school to this day.

“I witnessed a couple of weeks ago four to five police vehicles in high school for a girl fight,” she said.

A First Nations woman smiles at the camera.
DEG Secretary Virginia Robinson said Walgett’s schools are not physically or culturally safe.(Provided: Dharriwaa Elders Group)

The respected Dharriwaa Elders Group (DEG) says its calls to “stop criminalizing local students” have been ignored.

It also calls for school staff to receive more specialized training to defuse violent incidents

The DEG says the focus should be on student welfare and wants the police to be banned from bringing firearms onto school grounds.

“This is a significant issue because it introduces our children to the criminal world and it’s completely unnecessary,” said DEG Secretary Virginia Robinson.

She said more needed to be done to make the school “culturally safe” for pupils.

A policeman bent over a steaming pot with his arms outstretched in a police station.
A traditional smoking ceremony at Walgett Police Station.(ABC News: Gary-Jon Lysaght)

NSW Police said they are prioritizing youth engagement to prevent and reduce crime in the Walgett community, with youth case managers and school liaison officers running programs to target at-risk youth and creating alternative pathways for children to participate in the community.

“Officers attached to the North Central Police District regularly evaluate ways to improve strategies and opportunities for engagement with area youth and continue to work closely with the Walgett community and the Department of NSW Education to ensure local needs are met,” a spokesperson said.

A grandfather and his family, all smiling.
Garry Trindall says his granddaughters both suffer from anxiety after their college experiences.(Provided)

“Disconnected” Communities

Walgett Community College became the pilot school for the New South Wales Department of Education’s Focused Connected Communities Strategy in 2013.

The program, now in place in 31 schools, aims to address the educational and social disadvantages experienced by Aboriginal youth through early intervention, increased community involvement and better cultural integration.

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Parents want inquiry into student violence at rural NSW school
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This involves an additional school leadership position, local support staff and a school reference group to formally bring a community perspective.

Many at Walgett support the concept in theory, but say connected communities don’t work because local solutions aren’t implemented and only a select few residents are listened to by the government.

“Instead of the government just noticing one or two people, it should sit up and take notice of the Walgett community,” said Walgett Task Force Chairman Garry Trindall.

“It’s the only way to fix it.

“In my opinion, since the Connected Communities program took over, the school has been shrinking at a tremendous rate.”

An older native man standing outside.
Garry Trindall says the Department of Education needs to engage with the whole community, not just “a select few”.(ABC Western Plains: Lucy Thackray)

Mr Trindall said the structure of the program had led to “personal contact” “through the window” and that important bodies within Walgett needed to be brought together.

“Include all the key players – parents, teachers, police, DOC, the education department, the community – you need to have an organization within the city,” he said.

Mr Trindall said school safety was the most pressing issue.

“I have two granddaughters who both have medical certificates saying they are too stressed to go to school because of the fights,” he said.

“It’s terrible. It’s shocking.”

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Calls to end student violence in rural high schools(Source: Instagram)

Directors Revolving Door

Critics of Connected Communities also say its leadership structure undermines the principal’s authority, making meaningful change at the school “impossible”.

Walgett Community College has had 15 principals over the past 10 years.

Current executive director Adam Batchelor has served in the role for 11 months.

“Connected communities are the worst thing that has happened to this school,” said a teacher who wished to remain anonymous.

“The principal has to be the boss, but he can’t be – there’s a lot of political interference.

Four students outside a school fence.
Young people in Walgett have no choice but to go to school — the nearest alternative, well outside the catchment area, is 75 kilometers away.(Provided)

Task force member Jennifer Trindall agrees.

“Let our principals be principals and run the school as they see fit and have no interference from other outside groups, including community groups,” she said.

“Follow their advice but don’t run the same way.

“Connected communities came to town without any community consultation.

“It has just been set up and a committee has been formed. I think not many parents understand how Connected Communities schools work – I am one of them.

A padlocked door outside a school.
The door to Walgett Community College, padlocked during school hours.(ABC Western Plains: Lucy Thackray)

New staff progress

The Ministry of Education has responded to complaints from parents, acknowledging the frustration of community members who feel that nothing is being done to address the issues occurring ‘inside and outside of school “.

“I want to reassure them that is not the case and through our Connected Communities program, we remain deeply committed to improving student learning and well-being,” said the assistant secretary for school performance, Murat Dizdar.

“Over the past 12 months, we have recruited a new leadership team that is fully focused on improving student outcomes.”

A woman with dark hair and glasses wearing a white blazer.
Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said the school’s latest principal was making “progress”.(PA: Joel Carrett)

The department says the new executive director is holding meetings with parents and caregivers, conducting home visits and building stronger bonds with students.

“The challenges inside and outside the school gates in Walgett are something we need to tackle together and we need all community advocates to be involved and support the school,” said NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell.

“I am happy to hear that the new principal is making great progress at the school,” she said.

About four months of Mr. Batchelor’s tenure have been homeschooled during the COVID shutdowns.

The Ministry of Education says 15 staff are enrolled in Gamilraay language courses at TAFE, which will translate into the language taught at school, alongside a range of cultural activities including didgeridoo workshops and Sista Speak and Bro Speak sessions.

But Mr Trindall says decisions need to be made by grassroots groups and authorities need to spend more time with the community.

“I say to the government, get out of here and see what happens,” he said.

“Come here and see where mosquitoes, flies and snakes live.

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