Dozens of swastikas removed from Melbourne school, court told

Brighton Secondary College’s principal has told the Federal Court he did his best to limit a proliferation of hate symbols graffitied around his school, telling staff to remove dozens of swastikas as they were detected.

Principal Richard Minack oversees a school that has been accused of failing to protect Jewish students under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Racial Discrimination Act.

Brighton Secondary College principal Richard Minack.Credit:Jason South

Five former students – brothers Joel and Matt Kaplan, Liam Arnold-Levy, Guy Cohen and Zack Snelling – are suing the government-run school and the state of Victoria for negligence and allegedly failing to protect them under the convention and the act.

Their lawyer, barrister Adam Butt, has told the court the school failed in its duty of care for the students and that the “state has been vicariously liable for this”.

Earlier this month a witness to the Federal Court proceedings accused Minack of legitimising anti-Semitism at the school with a speech in which he referred to Jews as subhuman.

On Monday, the court was told this comment came in the form of a speech Minack made in 2019 which attempted to highlight that racist conduct was broader than simply acts of racial violence.

Chris Young, QC, acting for the state of Victoria and its employees, pressed expert witness Professor Emeritus Suzanne Rutland, who wrote a report critical of the school’s response to the repeated claims students had made of anti-Semitism at the school.

“Would you accept that someone who describes the Holocaust as an abomination is legitimate?” he asked.

“Correct,” Rutland replied.

“Would you accept that in a speech about prejudicial language or normalisation of racism through language, it can be appropriate to use actual examples of the language in order to make the point?”

Five former students of Brighton Secondary College are suing the state over the school’s alleged failure to protect them from years of anti-Semitic discrimination and abuse.Credit:Joe Armao

“It can be, but it’s not good to overuse it either,” Rutland said.

She added that it was not entirely clear Minack was rejecting racist language, nor was it entirely clear to the students concerned. “If the teaching … leads to an increase in anti-Semitism, which the school acknowledges through the number of swastikas, then there clearly was a problem that needed to be addressed.”

Butt said more than 40 swastikas were drawn around the school between 2013 and 2020.

On Monday, Minack told the court that staff inspected students’ desks for swastikas and erased them as they were discovered. However, there was no documented process for removing hate symbols from the school.

Former Brighton Secondary College students Matt Kaplan (left) and Liam Arnold-Levy have accused the school of ignoring complaints of anti-Semitism.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

Pressed by Butt on whether he could have done more to prevent the spread of swastikas or was incapable of doing so, Minack said: “It’s possible we were incapable; it’s possible, yeah”.

The court has previously heard Minack gave a speech to departing year 12 students in which he referred to a relative of his, who had fought with the German military.

Rutland told the court the ramifications of the Holocaust were still alive today.

“Somebody who has a German background, they have to struggle with that knowledge, and that certainly is not easy to do,” she said.

Speculating, she said it could be that “it was a complex background to come from …[and] there’s a dilemma between his sense of his own family, which he sees as being good people, and what actually happened. And it’s very difficult for anyone, but at the same time, it’s not giving a good example to the students as an educator.”

Asked by Young whether this was a lot to assume, Rutland replied: “When you’re an academic, you can take some assumptions on board. But I’m really more writing about his actual words.”

The trial, before Justice Debra Mortimer, continues.

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