Victorian Education Minister Natalie Hutchins has apologised unreservedly after the Federal Court of Australia last week upheld most of the complaints made by five former Jewish students relating to antisemitic behaviour at Melbourne’s Brighton Secondary College.
Matt Kaplan, his brother Joel, Liam Arnold-Levy, Guy Cohen and Zack Snelling had launched the action against the school and Victoria’s Department of Education over antisemitic bullying they claim to have suffered while students at the school between 2013 and 2020.
The AJN exclusively broke the story in a series of reports in July 2020.
Last Thursday, the five plaintiffs largely won their civil case, with Justice Debra Mortimer ordering damages totalling around $436,000 and ordering the state to issue an apology.
After the judge left the courtroom, there was a round of applause and several people present burst into a spontaneous chorus of Hatikvah.
In a damning lengthy judgment published on the Federal Court of Australia’s website last Thursday afternoon, Justice Mortimer said Brighton Secondary College principal Richard Minack – himself a defendant in the case – had failed in his responsibilities and was “unwilling to confront or address antisemitism” at the school.
“He did not take their complaints seriously. He did not take antisemitic student behaviour as seriously as he did other unacceptable behaviour,” Justice Mortimer said.
“He was wholly insensitive to Jewish identity, and he provided no leadership to his leadership cohort, and to BSC staff, so that they also exhibited a higher level of tolerance of antisemitic student conduct than other conduct.
“Jewish students were expected to put up with the behaviour, and indeed when students like Joel [Kaplan] sought to insist the behaviour be addressed, it was those students who tended to face disciplinary measures for the way their behaviour got out of hand.”
The AJN understands that Minack is not currently at the school, but he has not been stood down or replaced.
Some claims made about specific teachers were rejected, as were some claims about discipline imposed on the boys in the wake of what they said was antisemitic harassment and bullying.
The five plaintiffs had alleged negligence, claiming the school and department failed to protect them as Jewish students under federal racial discrimination laws and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
During the legal proceedings, the court heard there had been a lack of discipline of students over a rash of swastika daubings, and that one of the Jewish students had allegedly been subjected to a knife attack in a school bathroom. More than 100 swastikas were scrawled on lockers, bathrooms, fences and books, yet no student got into trouble. The court heard that Minack himself had at one point referred to a Nazi relative as a “good man”.
Counsel for the complainants, Adam Butt, who took on the case pro-bono, told the court in June 2022, “We’re talking here about a normalised culture of antisemitism.”
Hours after last Thursday’s judgment, Hutchins issued a media release saying, “Antisemitism and racism in any form is entirely abhorrent and has no place in schools.
“We’ll use this ruling to identify any further steps that can be taken to eliminate this behaviour. Every Victorian student deserves to feel safe and respected at school – we deeply regret the antisemitism experienced by students at Brighton Secondary College,” she said.
The Minister said the department is working hard across the school system with Jewish community groups to address and eliminate all forms of antisemitism – making Holocaust education mandatory, improving reporting processes and convening a Jewish Student Advisory Group to advise the Department of Education on practical ways to tackle antisemitism in schools.
Hutchins revealed there is now a school-level anonymous reporting process at Brighton Secondary College to ensure that any students who may have witnessed or experienced any bullying or antisemitic behaviour can report it.
A number of new or improved programs and strategies have also been put in place across Victorian government schools in response to claims of antisemitic bullying, she said.
Reaction to the verdict from the Jewish community was swift and overwhelmingly positive, with many hailing the courage of the five former schoolboys in taking the legal action.
Anti-Defamation Commission chair Dvir Abramovich hailed the historic decision as “a thundering victory for justice which marks a new dawn in the fight against the epidemic of antisemitism at schools that is spiralling out of control”.
He called on the state government to “immediately establish a task force that can effectively tackle the tsunami of antisemitism at schools and recommend substantive reforms to combat this escalating crisis”.
Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV) president Daniel Aghion noted that the judgement acknowledged there was a systemic failure to deal with antisemitic bullying by the school leadership.
“Jewish students are entitled, by law, to the same protection against vilification and discrimination as students from other minorities. The Jewish community has wrapped their arms around these students, and we hope they can now put this traumatic ordeal behind them,” he said.
Aghion said the JCCV stands ready to help the Victorian government and school leaders ensure that all Victorian schools offer a safe environment for Jewish students.
Executive Council of Australian Jewry president Jillian Segal said, “The time has come for a national antisemitism education program across Australian schools to provide resources and support to teachers and parents to understand and defeat this form of hatred.”