Christian Education

Students “unreasonably” expelled and excluded by a Christian school

Bethlehem College in Tauranga.

Sunlive

Bethlehem College in Tauranga.

Five disciplinary decisions at Bethlehem College in Tauranga have been deemed “unreasonable” following a number of complaints.

Four of the complaints related to student expulsions or expulsions, which the college accepted as “significant issues for the affected students and their whānau” and that it should take into account their “welfare”.

The complaints, which date back to 2020, were received by the government’s watchdog, the Ombudsman – an independent body which deals with complaints about public sector bodies, including school boards.

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The ombudsman’s office has confirmed Things that he had received five complaints about Bethlehem College since 2020.

Bethlehem College is a state-integrated Christian school that receives government funding.

Paul Shakes, chairman of the college’s board of trustees, said the school apologized to the families involved and accepted the ombudsman’s advice.

Shakes said that while he could not comment on specific cases, “expulsions, exclusions, suspensions and serious misconduct are all defined by legislation and Ministry of Education guidelines.”

Paul Shakes, chairman of Bethlehem College's board of trustees, said the school has apologized to the families involved.

Bethlehem College

Paul Shakes, chairman of Bethlehem College’s board of trustees, said the school has apologized to the families involved.

“We take our obligations to all students very seriously,” Shakes said. “Any disciplinary action requires consideration of the student or students involved, including the impact on their academic performance and well-being, as well as the safety and well-being of our other students.

“The Ombudsman informed us that there were flaws in our process when taking disciplinary action against five students in the first half of 2020, and we take full responsibility for that,” he said.

“We have apologized to the families involved and made sure our policies, procedures and professional development are stronger going forward.”

In a parent newsletter dated August 19, 2022, from Principal Secondary Steve Te Whaiti, the complaints were addressed under general notices, titled “improvements to our disciplinary process.”

In the letter, the college said the ombudsman had indicated that “process flaws meant that our decisions were unreasonable” and that the college recognizes that “these are important issues for the students involved and their whānau.”

The college said in the letter that the ombudsman’s recommendations, along with the school’s internal review, identified improvements to its disciplinary process that needed to include student welfare.

The Chief Ombudsman, Judge Peter Boshier

Cameron Burnell / Stuff

The Chief Ombudsman, Judge Peter Boshier

“Suspension hearings must consider a full range of factors, not just whether ‘gross misconduct’ was involved,” the bulletin read. “We must balance the welfare of the students involved as well as the welfare of other students when making such decisions.”

Bethlehem College also said it apologized to the families involved and pledged that its disciplinary process would be “best practice”. The school also stressed that the ombudsman was “always available to parents who complain about the actions or decisions of the board”.

The definition of serious misconduct by a pupil is set out in New Zealand law under section 17 of the Education Act 1989.

In a ruling last year over an unjustified expulsion from Macleans College in Auckland, chief ombudsman Peter Boshier said the legal definition of “gross misconduct” must be followed.

A case note on the Macleans College incident explained: “Department of Education guidelines require a high threshold for serious misconduct, and such conduct must be serious enough to warrant the removal of the pupil from the school.

“The board argued that the behavior constituted serious misconduct based on its standards. However, the Chief Ombudsman noted to the judicial authority that a breach of school rules does not, in itself, satisfy the legal requirement of gross misconduct.

Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti in her Beehive office.

ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff

Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti in her Beehive office.

The ombudsman’s office has not released its findings on the incidents at Bethlehem College.

The school has come under fire in recent months following revelations of alleged anti-queer discrimination against students. Things revealed that the college had a working paper on gender and that a former trans student at the school had tried to end his life.

The college has come under pressure to withdraw a discriminatory statement about marriage after anti-queer advocates wrote to the government accusing it of ‘institutionalized homophobia’.

Following these revelations, the government asked the Ministry of Education and its external assessment agency to review the safety of LBQTIA+ students at school.

The review follows assurances from Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti that an inquiry into anti-queer discrimination in schools was a ‘top priority’ for the Government, after concerns were raised that some Christian educators had incorporated policies harmful to LGBTQI students.