My daughter is a student at Mullumbimby High School. Unless you’ve had your head buried exceptionally deep in the sand, you will know that last Friday a 15 year old boy called Jai Morcom died there. This is an appalling tragedy. No one can deny this — no one wants to. The boy’s family and friends, the staff, students, families, the broader community — everyone wants an answer, everyone needs to know what happened so we can all work together to make sure it never happens again.

What we don’t need is the unwanted intrusion and biased reporting of the media. Is it a story which should be reported? Of course it is. One that should be told with great sympathy and understanding. Has it? Absolutely not. It has been slewed and manipulated and exploited to fit the story the media appears to want to tell — of a school out of control where bullies reign supreme and the staff are either powerless or indifferent.

The last strands of my faith unravelled on Monday night when I listened to the 5pm ABC Radio National News, which reported there had been “a mass walkout of students from the school” to take part in a protest rally about bullying.

“Mass” implies a major proportion of the student body. “Walkout” indicates action taken without sanction. “Protest rally” suggests a unified body with a cause.

I have a friend whose daughter has been through school with Jai since kindy. She took part in the “mass walkout protest rally” with her daughter yesterday. But what she saw was mostly a group of bewildered and grieving kids, many of them with their parents, walking out of the school gates which were manned by teachers in tears.

She told me the group was mainly Year 9 students, with a few students from other years who were Jai’s friends. They gathered at the school, listened to Jai’s father talk about how his son was not into fighting and would hate his friends to fight in his name, and then proceeded — along with the principal, several Year 9 teachers, lots of parents and a police escort — to walk to a local park, where they lit candles, sang songs, listened some of his friends talk about him, and then walked with the police escort back to school.

According to another parent who walked with his son, the only moments of discord during the whole event were caused by journalists walking alongside the group and sticking cameras and microphones into their faces, to which several students and parents took exception.

This take on the morning didn’t appear to be reported anywhere.

The media vans started to turn up at the school on Saturday. Just one to start with, but by Monday morning — when it was reported there may be some act of retribution planned — there were four or five. Cameras were thrust in the faces of students who were winding flowers around the front fence posts as a tribute to Jai, intruding on an act which should have been an intensely private moment.

A teacher told me he had found a reporter in the grounds — he had put on a school shirt so he could gain entry to the school. Several students reported that they had been offered disposable cameras by reporters to take photos in the school.

A senior teacher told me that many of the students he’s seen interviewed on television and in newspaper photographs aren’t actually students of Mullumbimby High School — some have left, some have been expelled and a couple have never been students there at all. He was also upset that the Mullumbimby students he had seen interviewed were not, he considered, representative of the general student body. He also knew of students who had been complimentary about the school and whose interviews had not been printed or broadcast.

Yesterday a major newspaper quoted as a source a film by a former student. The film was a school project created by a year 11 student 4 years ago. This, at best, is a dubious foundation from which to draw conclusions. Even more so, when taking into account this quote from my son, a friend of the film’s creator: “What I love is how out of context the film’s been taken; it’s essentially a comedy piece, like almost all of his stuff.”

Here are a few things I haven’t yet seen reported in the media:

  • That a member of staff managed to resuscitate Jai at the scene.
  • That there is a wall at the school covered with messages of sadness and love — not hate and accusation — and strewn with countless flowers.
  • That the staff are devastated — not because they fear for their jobs, but because they are genuinely shocked and distressed at the death of a student in their care.
  • That Jai’s parents, who would have the most right to accuse the school of lack of duty of care, have not, as far as I know, done so.

Reporters managed to find a few groups of disaffected students around town yesterday and made the most of their complaints. It’s true there are students and parents who dislike the culture of the school. It’s true there are things which could be improved. It’s true there are parents — including me — who believe the principal is not a strong enough leader within the school. It’s true there are a few bullies — I hear stories, though none of my three children has, thankfully, ever been targeted. And it’s absolutely true that the events which led to Jai’s death should never, ever have happened.

But perhaps I should leave the last word to my friend’s daughter — Jai’s friend — who has become increasingly angry and upset at news reports over the past few days.

“They’re making out that the school’s full of bullies and no-hopers and stoners and that there’s violence all the time and the teachers just don’t care. It’s so unfair. It’s just not like that.”

Out of the mouths of 15 year-olds.

Peter Fray

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