Get private companies out of University accommodation

A few weeks ago, a student was found dead at the University of Canterbury. The discovery of the 19 year old who was estimated to have been dead for 8 weeks. It has kicked off a storm about whether profit-making companies should be in the business of managing tertiary accommodation.

Many students in halls are young people away from homes for the first time in their lives. Many will be nervous, and have no friends. They will not be in familiar environments and will be feeling stressed at having to fend for themselves all the while getting their studies underway.

In a country with an on-going mental health emergency, it seems that one of Christchurch’s biggest employers, the University of Canterbury has failed to heed the message: looking after student mental health is essential. It seems that Campus Living Villages has failed in its primary duty of care to the people that inhabit the villages it is responsible for looking after. And its Chief Executive has not helped things by saying:
“IF something needs to change…”.

No “IF’s”, “BUT’s” or “MAYBE’s” mate. Your company mucked up. Your company can fix up.

Then it can leave the tertiary accommodation sector.

I see no place for private companies in tertiary accommodation. If there need to be, they should be New Zealand companies operating to New Zealand law. A foreign company operating under a minimalist management model where the ratio of Residential Assistants was kept to a bare minimum – 54 students for every R.A. More importantly the two R.A.’s were only working part time, which further reduces the amount of contact time they had with their charges.

It is the culture that should be truly alarming. A human being dead for weeks would have been entering a horrible state of decomposition by that point – how could someone not have noticed the smell or perhaps other biological indicators such as ants or flies or maggots(!)? Why did no one from his courses contact the halls to see where their student had gone or to see if he was even still going to University – eight weeks is a full term plus mid-semester holidays and maybe a week longer?

And to the poor parents who thought their boy was going to be safe at the University that presumably he had chosen to study at and begin what for me was the most exciting chapter of my academic life, how do you explain what happened? CAN you explain what happened? I am not sure one honestly could.

Simply conducting investigations is merely the beginning of a much bigger process if University of Canterbury wants to recover the portion of its reputation that is now decomposing. It needs to boot out the Australian company. Its New Zealand replacement needs to have very clear terms of engagement set down including minimum full time staffing levels, a 24/7 help line, a supervisory panel making sure that all parties are compliant with their responsibilities.

How lucky I am that I live in the same town as where I went to University. I only had to cycle in or catch the bus. I knew from the outset numerous people there from Burnside High School and made more friends fairly quickly in Geography and Geology. The staff there were great and if I or another student was struggling they would pull us up to make sure we were okay.

Not everyone has that fortune. For some life at University can be very lonely. It does not need to be like this.

And if we want to stop another death, nor should it be.

Second firearms overhaul announced

The Government has announced the impending second tranche of firearms legislation. The announcement was made following the second of several gun amnesty collection days to recover firearms that had been made illegal in the wake of the 15 March 2019 terrorist attacks.

When the Government announced its plans for dealing wit New Zealand’s arsenal of military grade automatic and semi-automatic weapons, it was intended to happen in two phases. The first, immediate phase, would quickly end the legality to own weapons such as the AR-15 which was used in the Christchurch terrorist attacks. This was the emergency legislation that was pushed through Parliament at speed in March and was enforceable by the end of the same month.

Because a lot of New Zealanders are unaware of Parliamentary process there was a perception that the Government intended to confiscate peoples firearms without whim or reason. This was despite the government being clear that it was intended to be a temporary stop gap measure whilst more comprehensive legislation was drafted. The perception, which was rumoured to have been enabled by American firearm lobbyists, was coldly met by politicians from both sides of Parliament with the exception of A.C.T. Member of Parliament David Seymour.

It would be followed by the much more comprehensive and permanent legislation that would set in law a tighter regime around the acquisition and ownership of such firearms. In the meantime there would be amnesty days up and down the country where people with firearms that had been banned could be surrendered to the Police at drop off points. The owners of the guns being surrendered would be given an indication as to how much they would receive in financial compensation for handing them over.

The Police acknowledge that there are many guns that they probably do not know about. An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 potentially illegal firearms are thought to be circulating within New Zealand.

The new laws will target those with criminal histories; people with mental health issues including those who might have tried to use a gun to kill themselves. Those who are espousing open violence against society or particular individuals or groups of individuals are also likely to be seen as a red flag to Police when issuing gun licences. A firearms register will be established by the Police, and the cost of maintaining the firearms licencing office will be better offset by changes in the cost of licencing. New offences and the matching penalties are also likely to be added.

This time there will be a select committee period lasting three months. There will be substantial time for firearm advocates and firearm safety advocates to get their messages into submissions and prepare for hearings in front of the Select Committee. This was, contrary to the honest beliefs of some, always intended to happen – there was never any intention to block the permanent tranche of legislation from public scrutiny.

Teachers strike as much about conditions as pay

As New Zealand braces for another wave of teacher strikes, we are getting mixed messages about what is driving the strikes. Some are saying it is wages. Others are saying it is working conditions. The Ministers of Education and Children are saying they have done their best.

Teachers have to be a range of things that they were never trained to do and should not be attempting to do. Among these roles are being de facto parents, part time social workers, and nurses. In other words being made to do – by circumstance – things that they simply should not.

So, I find it a bit disingenuous that the Minister of Education Chris Hipkins and the Minister for Children Tracey Martin can somehow believe that the teachers are simply striking to get as much money as they can.

A teacher, whilst reasonably expected to discipline children when they are naughty or refuse to follow instructions, should not expect to have to put up with the range of behaviours that they are being subject to. These include physical assault, things being thrown at them, inappropriate behaviour such as groping. All of this is not only totally improper has anyone considered the disruption and upset that it must cause students to be witness to this?

When I was at intermediate in 1993 we had a relief teacher one time. She was covering for two days and on the first day, a student was being particularly disruptive. His desk had already been separated and pushed up against a wall by the regular teacher because of his behaviour. On this particular day he was not having a bar of the relief teacher. At some point he had been asked to get on with his work and stubbornly refused. When the teacher came around to tell him off, he leaped out of his chair and pushed her up against the wall. The class captain ran next door to get a teacher to assist. It took about three staff to restrain him and the class had to be sent outside whilst he was calmed down. Then after a meeting with the Principal which saw him suspended on the spot he came back in grabbed his books, dumped them on the floor and slammed the desk lid so hard it broke its hinge.

Things have moved on since 1993. But I think the ability of teachers to sort out unruly students has not improved. There will always be a disruptive core of students in any school who might come from homes where there is no parental guidance. None of the teachers I had reacted excessively to the behaviour of the students in their classes.

But more recently they have also had to be parents of sorts. Some have said that they have children in their classes still wetting themselves; children who have not learnt basic table manners. Some have had to go so far as to take children into their own homes, which creates ethical issues about the limitations of a teachers responsibility and where the State, parents or other body must take charge.

Teachers are also concerned about the lack of help they are getting on children with special needs. Whilst assistance has been provided, concerns linger over the quality of the training, how many hours the teacher aides will be able to do. Special needs students range greatly in terms of needs and dependency. Some are quite high functioning whilst others will have behavioural and language impairments and some will be non verbal.

When one considers these issues individually and collectively, should we really be surprise that teachers are going on strike. The expectations on them have become unrealistic and the resourcing has not kept up. Now we are paying the price.

The mental health bomb

The lunatic is in the hall.                                      

The lunatics are in the hall.

The lyrics from Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage” are haunting and disturbing. They talk of an issue many people have, but which few want to know about; an issue  that lingers like a bomb that occasionally explodes in people’s faces with horrifying results.

The causes of mental health issues are varied in their origin. It might be a result of the brain being starved of oxygen at birth or related to the use of illegal substances. It might be an attack or an accident, a major disaster or combat in a conflict. The symptoms will vary from one person to the next, as will the diagnosis and the how and the when of it occurring. Addressing the problems can be costly and take time, but the consequences of failing to do so are very much worse and can include violent crime or suicide. And contrary to the prevailing attitudes of the day, it is not a situation where “hardening up” is an acceptable thing to say or expect.

Nobody should doubt that mental health is a ticking bomb reaching into all facets of society. From the very poor to the very rich; from the newest citizen to those who have lived here all our lives – we all know someone who has struggled with their mental health.

In Christchurch the situation is particularly serious. Six years after one of the most devastating disasters in New Zealand history we have a situation where there are people just starting to register the first signs of major trauma. They might be children wetting their bed or having nightmares or older people bursting into tears after an aftershock. They affect their ability to concentrate on a task.

The issue is not helped by a decline in mental health facilities and the staff who have to operate them. Nor is it helped by physical damage caused by earthquakes and neglect by officials unable and/or unwilling to do their job. Such places aside from being physically unsafe create an an environment conducive to depression and neglect.

The Government response has been lacklustre and fails to acknowledge the complex nature of the problem. And those problems are leading to people to commit crimes not because they thought committing an offence is a good idea, but because all too often it is the only way to make “the system” notice you. So, what one is actually seeing are final desperate cries for help, from people for whom the next move might be suicide.

They deserve our help and our compassion, because failure to do so might have some dreadful consequences awaiting.

The lunatic is in my head

The lunatics are in my head

Margaret Dodd symptomatic of a bigger problem

We talk so often about people being unstable in terms of their mental health and needing urgent help. We see what happens when people in desperate need of mental health assistance begin to offend. Yet, New Zealand cuts their funding, cuts the services that might save their lives, save New Zealand from another innocent person being raped/murdered/etc by someone whose mind is shot. And now, in 2017 I tell you about a case that I have been casually tracking vis-a-vis the media for the last couple of years. It is about a woman who at first I thought was just a a disgusting woman with a sick perversion towards young boys, but now I honestly think she needs mental health assistance and fast.

The re-emergence of Margaret Dodd in the media should be of significant concern not only to people who are parents of young children, but to health authorities as well. After a jail period of several months, a lady who has been banned from numerous schools, parks and other public areas, is once again being found loitering around areas with young children, particularly young boys. Her case is not new. This began as much as 2 or 3 years ago. The lady involved is in her 50’s or early 60’s and – much to the chagrin of the police, public and schools alike – she cannot really be touched for one reason or another, and yet, the danger she poses should set alarm bells ringing in every school in her vicinity.

But is Margaret Dodd actually a serious danger? There is no doubt that she has a major problem with boys, especially those of pre-pubescent age. There is no doubt that she has posed a risk to them by constantly being around them in ways any parent would find profoundly disturbing. But – and we could all be wrong here – something in the normal sense of someone being seriously in need of being locked up is not quite adding up.

The very sad and ugly truth about mental health in New Zealand is that people are committing violent or potentially violent offences in order to get themselves noticed by officials. Driven to desperation from continually being turned away, their ability to articulate their issue matched and in too many cases overtaken by the deaf, totally mute mental welfare system, they turn to crime. Their lives are spiralling out of control, out the ability of friends and loved ones to help, who find themselves recoiling at what has happened to a person who in the past might have been among their nearest and dearest.

Whilst I am concerned in no uncertain terms about what Margaret Dodd may be up to, she strikes me as someone who may have back ground issues. And this is where things become quite alarmiing. Margaret Dodd has shown no understanding, remorse or anything else that might suggest she migh know the implications of what she is doing. And yet her offences seem to be accelerating. Going to jail seems to have done nothing at all for her – or anyone else

I am NOT defending Margaret Dodd. If she is a cunning calculating paedophile or other offender who is simply playing the system, she needs to go away for a long time.

But what if she is genuinely not able to understand what she has done? What if she is genuinely mentally ill and needs help?

Jail with a bunch of other criminals sure ain’t gonna help that. So let us assess Margaret Dodd. Is this lady who has been harassing Christchurch schools, parks and other public places an actual menace or someone screaming for help because social agencies have once again failed to spot the warning signs?