Thursday, December 31, 2015

Christmas & New Year offer time to reflect on peace and violence around us

This time of year brings to mind a stenciled piece of graffiti. It shows a child with his face scrunched up, crying over a pile of wrapped gifts. "I wanted you present, not these!"

This is a time when we would like to slow down to be more present. And it's a time when we are invited to think about peace.

In 2015 violence seemed to be everywhere, much of it arbitrary and horrendous. We were disturbed by it, continuous news magnified it in our minds.

Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff has often repeated that "we are living in the most dangerous of times". But folk like Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker say the idea that things are getting worse is one of the great misconceptions of our time.

"Accounts of daily life in medieval and early modern Europe reveal a society soaked in blood and gore," he says reflecting on his best-selling book The Better Angels of Our Nature. "For entertainment, one could nail a cat to a post and try to head-butt it to death."

Who should we believe? The new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Sideshow Alley, sides with Pinker. It provides a sobering and macabre reminder of the institutional savagery at the heart of colonial Australia. The standard life was not much more than three score and 10. And you could be killed by bush-rangers just for travelling on a road.

We have always been challenged to sit between imprudent optimism and overt pessimism about violence and peace; to be real about threats and supposed crises and to keep our fears in check.

It may seem remote, but at the time of the first Christmas the world was also full of change and turmoil. It was subject to globalisation, empires (as opposed to nation states) flexing their muscles, bringing both stability and great injustice.

Regardless of whether we are more or less violent than in the past, it is certainly true that we are less likely to deny the existence of violence. The British never really told themselves about the slave trade or the treatment of the Irish. Family violence and abuse in the church and in children's homes long existed but wasn't acknowledged.

Helping us acknowledge violence may be the very thing that makes us scared: the modern media. But acknowledging violence is part of the solution.

Former leader of the Uniting Church in Australia James Haire has worked in Indonesia since the 1970s and helped broker peace between Christians and Muslims over many years. He says he told Indonesian political leaders the facts; that they were inflicting hideous violence on Muslims. They reminded him of crimes by the Dutch. He didn't argue with them. Each side acknowledged its actions. It became the foundation for something new, something better.

Peace can't be based or sustained on over-positive assessments of religion and the human condition. Wounds have to be healed the hard way.

Haire's friend, Abdurrahman Wahid, popularly known as Gus Dur, former President of Indonesia often used to say, "Peace without justice is an illusion".

"I completely agreed with Gus," Haire tells me. "You can only begin the peace process with total transparency and frankness." Peace in the fullest sense of the word is not just the absence of violence, but the presence of justice.

Peace does need an ability to think afresh, to reconsider calcified views. Gun reform in the United States is difficult because of hardened views about it. Australians never developed entrenched positions. Systems, in all their variety and intensity, can "fix" people into limited views and make them less able to see possibilities for change.

Violence is best overcome by the knowledge that there's an alternative. Peace grows when we feel and experience alternatives. Jesus, whose birth we are remembering at Christmas, was a breath of fresh air. He turned expectations upside down. He was a victim of extreme violence, becoming the ultimate scapegoat. But he taught us something by embodying an alternative ethic.

Christmas and new year offer space and inspiration for other ways of being. It's a good time to gain perspective and fresh perspectives. Shalom to you this season.

First published in The Canberra Times, December 18, 2015

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Control orders on 14-year-olds an ethical dilemma

As the so-called war on terror escalates in the wake of the bombings in France, Attorney-General George Brandis wants to give police the power to place control orders on suspects as young as 14.

Control orders allow active monitoring, 1984-style.

Can they prevent acts of violence? The evidence suggests they can. As well as enabling the collection of evidence, control orders disrupt plans.

But the proposed law, part of a suite of anti-terror measures being investigated by a parliamentary committee, creates an ethical dilemma – especially at a time when the values of the West are under threat. In Western society it isn't normally a crime to think something. How can it be right to severely limit the freedom of someone as young as 14, just because they *might* later commit a crime?

It'll inevitably mean profiling. Islam doesn't have a monopoly on violence, but that's where the police will look. They don't have the resources to look everywhere.

Control orders are expensive. They require rotating shifts, 24/7. Counter-radicalisation programs are far cheaper and they seem to work for young people, if not for adults whose minds are more set.

Fourteen year olds can and do take part in extreme violence. Some suicide bombers are even younger. But they are invariably egged on by adults.

This is not an argument that sees children and young people as innocents as that would deprive them of agency; able to make their own choices.

But we have a extra special responsibility to them and that responsibility requires a commitment to understand them.

Adults can easily forget what it's like to be a teenager. And it's adults who draft laws.

Every culture is predicated on the expression of some passions and beliefs, the exploitation and denial of others. Cultures use visible and invisible rules to neutralise reckless and dangerous pursuits in favour of mature ones.

Advances in neuroscience are helping us get kids. In search of personal heroes and heroines who can assist them in constructing the self – young people can be steered towards an alternative course, realigned with the expectations of their community. They may be less likely to do so if living with the threat of punitive control orders for uncommitted crimes.

We know that their ego is under construction. Their identities are somewhat fractured at the same time as recognise and articulate a world they know to be broken. In seeking to be integrated they seek out and readily identify with characters who they think are consistent, have integrity or commonly offer a way they see as restoring justice. Because of a deep ideological hunger and often a sense of urgency about the meaning of life, adolescents are especially capable of making commitments, even self sacrifice, that challenge the norm.

A family counselor and friend of mine, now in his 50s, is candid about the heroes in his adolescence: "Ned Kelly and before him, Ben Hall, a bush ranger who felt poorly treated by the judiciary and sought to correct things."

"Look at the kids who went to Anzac. They lied about their age because they wanted to be part of something bigger and do something heroic. We forget that; that pull on them as lost souls. The call to join IS; what's the attraction? Participating in something bigger, wanting to make decisions for themselves."

The ACT government and local Muslim community are against the extension of control orders, as a potential breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Their concerns echo those of the national Human Rights Commission; using laws to control the behaviour of a young person when they have committed no crime could be counter-productive.

Lowering the control order age to just 14 risks adding to negative images of young people especially those of Muslim faith who may need stronger support services and mentoring relationships.

This is a vexed issue. Whoever is in government, Labor and the Coalition know they would be crucified if a bomb was to go off here that led to multiple deaths. Recent attacks reiterate that Western governments are not making up the jihadist terror threat.

But just because governments are right in their fight, doesn't mean they are right about everything to do with it.

First published in The Canberra Times, 12 December 2015

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Responding to the needs of students with complex needs

A 10-year-old boy with autism would likely not have been held in a cage, albeit briefly, had his teachers felt the ACT Education and Training Directorate had been there to help them.

Submissions to the expert panel review released last month show ACT teachers felt overwhelmed by the growing numbers of students with disabilities and learning difficulties, and didn't know where to turn.

The 280-page report praises "an excellent school system" but points to woefully small numbers of school psychologists, to gaps in supports for students with challenging behaviours, to inadequate training and professional development for teachers, and to inadequate infrastructure; especially withdrawal and calming spaces for children.

So even though there was public outrage about the purpose-built blue cage the 10-year old boy was held in, the expert panel recommends the development of spaces with the same aim. Except they would be sensitive to the needs of the child. They must uphold a student's dignity.

Withdrawal spaces include tents and low-lit "nooks" with cushions. They must be monitored, have no locks, and most importantly, be used by students on a voluntary basis.

The independent report finds that many teachers believe in inclusive schooling but have been unable to deliver it in classrooms as they have been pulled in many directions by multiple demands. It acknowledges that physical restraint is sometimes necessary but says teachers should be open about it to avoid situations where "a well-intentioned response is inappropriate or becomes abusive".

It says ACT schools are not always good at providing documentation and oversight around seclusion and restrictive practices, and criticises the Directorate for not having clear and practical guidelines to direct teachers.

And it says teachers are being pressured by the Commonwealth to teach with less flexibility in order to meet minimum national standards. Rigorous testing satisfies the Commonwealth, but it can get in the way of building relationships that make schooling work.

Central themes in the report are relationships and "classroom climate", the environment in which schooling takes place.

Teachers and leaders who have time to observe and understand students are more likely to tailor their teaching and support for those students. Those who build high-quality relationships with students have considerably fewer disciplinary problems than those who don't.

It's not just the teacher-student relationships that matters but also relationships between teachers and parents and carers. Developing a strong home-school rapport takes time and often needs to be initiated by the school because of barriers that prevent some carers from engaging. They include negative past experience of school, financial stress, poor health or lack of childcare.

Sometimes parents' grief over a child's disability or disorder makes it hard to see what their child's education needs are and how to advocate on their behalf. The report urges school leaders to go the extra mile to develop these relationships early because family involvement in a child's learning is linked to reduced challenging behaviour.

The expert panel consulted widely, hearing from students, teachers and agencies. They talked frankly about their experiences, holding out hope the Directorate listens. The fact the Directorate has adopted all 50 recommendations signals it wants to honour their input.

There are some interesting statistics too. The numbers of students being suspended in ACT public schools has significantly dropped over the past four years. It's a surprise to learn that despite receiving public funds, there is no requirement for Catholic and Independent schools to report to the Directorate on suspensions and exclusions. Surely that has to change.

As children with complex needs and disabilities are entitled to integration, then all states and territories have to find and justify the expense of supporting integration. The ACT is too small a jurisdiction not to deliver an effective and coordinated multi-agency, whole of government approach, especially now with more evidence of what works.

Strengthening the Network Student Engagement Teams, as the government intends, is welcome. Better case management, pulling in experts from across disciplines, is key. The new ACT student resource allocation program, which kicks in from next year, offers complimentary reform that gives school leaders more autonomy to better address student needs.

The relationship between the Directorate and schools has clearly been under-nourished. The sustained and hard work needed to implement the recommendations should result in schools knowing and trusting that the Directorate is there to help rather than ready to pounce and scapegoat when things go wrong.

First published in The Canberra Times, November 30 2015