An Unreserved Apology - With Reservations

Michael Park Steiner School




New Zealand has always been a useful country to examine how Steiner schools might behave when they've been state-funded for some time. They've been gradually integrating into the state system since the Private Schools Conditional Integration Act of 1975, to the point where there are now very few private Steiner Schools left (we believe there are only two: one in Motueka and the other in Titirangi, West Auckland).


But the following account shows that you don't even have to be at a Steiner school, or even have children at one, in order to fall prey to the extreme vilification experienced and reported by so many families worldwide.


On the 14th of February 2014, the state-funded Michael Park Steiner School, in Ellerslie, Auckland, published an apology to a couple who have lived in Ellerslie for over 40 years, well before the school moved to its present site, just next door to them, in 1979.


The apology offers a window into what this couple has had to endure for years at the hands of the school's staff & its community:


"[Names redacted] are valued neighbours of the school but our relationship with them has not historically been handled well by the school. Over the past decade, there have been a number of long standing misunderstandings, concerns and grievances, between the school and [names redacted]. Incorrect allegations that should have been investigated immediately were misinterpreted. We sincerely regret this and apologise unreservedly."


This “unreserved” apology followed a lengthy and long-requested mediation with the school, which eventually took place in 2013, and only once Dee Whitby, the school's principal from early 2002 to December 2012, had left to head Orana Steiner School in Australia.


We interviewed the neighbour in September 2012, prior to Dee Whitby's departure, and he told us about the origins of the issues with the school. The apology's reference to historical problems refers to more than a decade of hell for the couple stemming from events early on in Dee Whitby's headship.


"Back in 2003", he told us, "we were invited by the Auckland Council to put in submissions from residents who lived beside a school in the whole of the Auckland area, because many of these schools could have extended the hours which they were allowed to use their school.


"And there were hundreds of submissions. Our submission only asked that the school remain as it is at the moment, but not to have the hours to which the RSST [Rudolf Steiner SchoolsTrust] requested, which was much longer than even Auckland Grammar School.


"From there on, everything went downhill. Because the school did not get granted the right to use the school for longer hours and it had to keep to what the environment court had said initially, they honed in on me and it became personal."


The apology from the school went on: "[Names redacted] have suffered considerable stress as a result of the poor behaviour of some in our school and the poor response, care and attention shown over the past decade by various members of the Michael Park School Board of Trustees regarding [names redacted]’s concerns. We have on many occasions not responded quickly enough to the [names redacted] or given appropriate acknowledgement and action on the issues raised."


This neighbour described some of this to us in detail: "sometime after that," he revealed, "I went down to the school and I was picking up rubbish for the school's sake by the request of one of the teachers. And the school, for a green school, was in a mess: there was a lot of rubbish lying around. I picked a lot of rubbish up. And a cleaner approached me, and we spoke very socially. This incident was taken and completely changed, out of context, for which I received a trespass notice, for going onto the school grounds, when I was only picking up rubbish. I asked to know why the trespass notice had been given to me. I was told that a formal complaint had been laid against me by the cleaner. I knew this could not be true. Most events to follow were to stem from this false statement, which was acted upon without due diligence, thus compromising many and unwitting staff member.


"It took two years or more for the school to come back, not to me, their letter was sent to the Privacy Commission but made to look as though it had come to me. It was never sent. And they invented a second cleaner that I was supposed to have ... verbally abused. Unfortunately it took me quite some time to confirm with the manager of that company that no such complaint had ever been made."


The school's apology went even further: "Consequently there has been a misinterpretation of the [names redacted]’s intent within the community and as a result, their reputation has been maligned and hurt. Had we been more responsive and proactive in addressing these concerns, some of the negative impacts on the [names redacted], including hurt and stress, could have been avoided. For this we unreservedly apologise."


The neighbour described to us some of the treatment he had been on the receiving end of: "There are things happening all the way round, people who used to speak to us from the school have been told not to," he explained.


"It's nice when you know the caretaker and you know various people and you can say "g'day, how are you doing", you know, bits and pieces, but that no longer happens. They shy away from you. The kids are led away. So if one person turns round and says, "Don't talk to the guy next door", "Yes but hold on a minute, he gave me some flowers for the kids to take down to put in the school", "Yeah well, you know, best not", "But he gave me greenery for the school's winter spiral", "Oh well you know, don't get involved with him." All of those things are happening continuously these days.


"If I'm talking to somebody up the front, to a woman, we might be talking about cherry blossom. Suddenly you get a third person butt in between you saying "are you alright? Is he bugging you?"


"On one particular day after the school had finished, I approached a mature student who was sitting outside, we spoke very pleasantly for a few moments. The office manager from the school approached us both and told me "do not speak to that girl, you are not allowed to speak to anybody." The way in which they were doing it implied something which is totally unacceptable and untrue.


"I can go out on my bike on a beautiful sunny morning during a school holiday, and say "good morning" to one of their staff who's outside the school, and within a couple of days I'm told by an education review officer that I assaulted her.


"And then you'd meet one of the teachers in a restaurant when you're out on a Saturday night with your wife, and they'd say "oh well of course we've all been told not to speak to you". And they say "but we don't like being told that", and I say "well are you going to say anything?" "No well we can't really, because the board of trustees pays our wages, so we've got to go along with whatever we're told, so we'd best not talk to you". That's pretty hurtful when you've known somebody for years and years."


This is but a small sample of what this couple have had to endure since 2003, and they have thick folders of accounts chronicling their ordeal.


The unreserved apology (in full below) went on to acknowledge their longstanding commitment to being supportive neighbours to the school, and re-affirmed the need to acknowledge and be courteous towards them.


One of the conditions of the mediation was for the apology to be published in both the weekly school Friday Flyer, which was done, and in the school's quarterly Spiral magazine, which would’ve offered the apology a more permanent and important place, for archive purposes.


Interestingly, the magazine’s tagline quotes Rudolf Steiner: “Live through deeds of love and let others live with tolerance for their unique intentions”.


Two weeks later however, on the 28th February 2014, the school followed up their unreserved apology with the following addition to that week's Friday Flyer:


Dear Parents and Whānau


Following publication of the apology to [names redacted] in the Friday Flyer 14th February 2014, Newsletter 1, Dee Whitby (ex principal of MPS) has expressed concern to the Board that the content of the apology reflected adversely on her reputation or the reputation of previous board members. This could not have been further from our intent. The published letter come out of a mediation process between the Board and [names redacted] and was in a format agreed upon in the course of the Mediation.


The Mediation reflected extensive and intense communication and led to the general acceptance of the situation from both sides and equally a sense of goodwill to move forward. In the mediation there was a real sense of not singling out individuals, but rather that this was problem in part of an institution versus individuals and because of the nature of these issues the institution operates in a different domain from that of the individual and there is a construed potential for conflict.


The Board would like to assure Dee and member of the school community that the publication was certainly not intended to suggest that either Dee or any other present or former member of the School Board bore specific responsibility for the issues raised in the apology - those issues were the responsibility of the School as a whole.


Sincerely,


Chair of the Board of Trustees

Michael Park School



”It took over ten years to receive an apology,” the neighbour told us recently. “It took only a matter of days for the school to publish the virtual retraction, which was a politically correct insult to my integrity.”


Having qualified their unreserved apology, the school then refused to publish it in their Spiral magazine, despite their previous agreement to do so. The apology present in the Friday Flyer is also not available online, unlike the Flyer itself. The only trace of its existence, aside from the handful of physical copies which will undoubtably get lost and forgotten over time, is this quote on the front page: "you will notice that in this Flyer there is a published an apology letter [sic] from the Board to our good neighbours [names redacted]. We are looking forward to positive relationships with all our neighbours moving forward."


The neighbour had constantly affirmed to us the couple’s ongoing willingness to move forward, and felt strongly that the whole situation could and should have been sorted out over a cup of tea right at the beginning. His only caveat being that he wished this to be based on the truth. Back before the mediation, he told us: "it's really affected my wife and I, at a time of our lives when we should be really enjoying ourselves, but I am up against people who really don't wish to know. They're prepared to let untruths take place, and in some cases these people will then leave the employ of the school and go off, thinking that they've got away before anything hits the fan."


But we can see from this story that even when something does hit the fan, all it takes is some exposure for the mess to be made to disappear, and hopefully be quickly forgotten. Even an unreserved apology such as this one is extremely conditional if personal accountability is seen to be an issue. In the case of Jo Sawfoot this happened even after an Employment Tribunal ruling, when Sandie Tolhurst trawled round internet sites and forums “correcting” Judge Warren’s ruling.


In September 2012, this “supportive” neighbour of Michael Park Steiner School was exhausted, harried, and trying hard to hang onto his good humour back when he talked to us: "truth and honesty are paramount in any child's education," he said. "A Rudolf Steiner school gets the funding it gets because it's a "special character" school. As a special character school, what sort of character is it? What are they teaching the kids?"


We can all too easily imagine how these “valued neighbours” must be feeling now.



14th February 2014


[Names redacted] are valued neighbours of the school but our relationship with them has not historically been handled well by the school. Over the past decade, there have been a number of long standing misunderstandings, concerns and grievances, between the school and [names redacted]. Incorrect allegations that should have been investigated immediately were misinterpreted. We sincerely regret this and apologise unreservedly.


[Names redacted] have suffered considerable stress as a result of the poor behaviour of some in our school and the poor response, care and attention shown over the past decade by various members of the Michael Park School Board of Trustees regarding [names redacted]’s concerns. We have on many occasions not responded quickly enough to the [names redacted] or given appropriate acknowledgement and action on the issues raised. Consequently there has been a misinterpretation of the [names redacted]’s intent within the community and as a result, their reputation has been maligned and hurt. Had we been more responsive and proactive in addressing these concerns, some of the negative impacts on the [names redacted], including hurt and stress, could have been avoided. For this we unreservedly apologise.


[Names redacted] have always had the best interests of the school at heart and were some of the original supporting neighbours and friends of Michael Park School when it was first established. They have, over the years, helped us in many ways, by keeping an eye out for vandalism, hosting visiting staff and donating their time and resources to support the learning programme of the school. Most recently, this involved their donation of saw stools for Class 3 and a gift of many original Friday Flyer magazines for the School archives.


This communication is to encourage our school staff and parents to recognise and see the [names redacted] and their contributions as assets in our community. We greatly value the goodwill of the [names redacted] and all of our neighbours. We ask that the school community reflect their thanks to the [names redacted] in the form of acknowledgement and courtesy.


Sincerely,


Chair of the Board of Trustees

Michael Park School


 
1861-2011 : 150 years of Rudolf Steiner

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