Saturday, January 25, 2014

Australia: Former student tells of his ongoing trauma after porn-loving teacher's betrayal

A FORMER student who had his school internet account hacked by a teacher to download violent pornography has revealed the trauma of being betrayed by a person of trust.

Disclosing his identity for the first time, Craig Maria, 25, condemns the state education system for a series of failures that left him wrongly accused of viewing hundreds of degrading images at Naracoorte High School almost a decade ago.

The Mount Gambier-based man has told of the devastating impact it has left on his family, which has also had to cope with the death of two of his brothers.

Having turned his life around after suffering depression, he is now waging a one-man war against the State Government, and particularly the Education Department, for the "unforgivable" breach of trust that caused him to drop out of school before completing Year 10.

"It has been traumatic and full on - it is like a 'David and Goliath' struggle and that is a good analogy," he told The Advertiser in an exclusive interview.

"I was 'killed' as a student and I was not given the opportunity to complete my education.

"It was a low point of my life but I want to show others that you can fight if you have the knowledge of truth. This is about closure and seeking answers to why I was never believed. I want people to know what it is like being in a system. The pain was unbearable at times."

His decision to go public comes after The Advertiser disclosed the IT teacher had escaped the sack but will never teach again.

An official investigation by Education Department chief executive Tony Harrison found that "on the balance of probabilities" the claims were "substantiated".

Last week, Mr Maria met with Jay Weatherill at the Premier's Adelaide office, together with Mr Harrison, as he sought answers to his trauma.

At the meeting, Mr Weatherill told the student that he was "committed" to his case.

He told him that he would also speak to Mr Harrison "regarding possible policy changes" as well as what information could be provided the student regarding the investigation.

Today, Mr Maria reveals how the school's then computing teacher, a father, became a mentor at Naracroote High School but used his trust to hack into his internet account and then thwart the subsequent investigation.

Throughout 2004, the teacher, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was investigated for abusing Mr Maria's logon to view dozens of explicit sites including some which were found to feature "rape" scenes.

Mr Maria, who has declined offers of up to $25,000 to tell his story, was identified as the suspect after the questionable material was flagged by an internet log.

Much of his anger is directed at the school's hierarchy, which accused him of accessing the pornography, "bullied" him into admitting wrongdoing and suggested he was a "liar and manipulator".

A senior staff member, who is now the subject of two formal investigations, dismissed his denials while, according to Mr Maria, evidence that he was not even at school at the time of the downloading was ignored for weeks.

He said he was frequently pulled out of class and became the victim of a whispering campaign.

"Never was I believed - not for a second. I had done nothing wrong but no one cared. It felt like being torn apart. My friends were turned away ... it was a terrible time," the property manager said.

The relentless questioning by the school prompted his parents to even start questioning his denials.

He said he was constantly placed in detention and suspended on at least four occasions before school officials realised they had accused the wrong person.

The school principal, who is now retired, later wrote to him to apologise and offered just $5 for his internet account "to cover any costs incurred".

But the damage was done and Mr Maria dropped out of school, disillusioned with life.

He left Naracoorte and moved to the lower South East where he was employed in a range of jobs. He has slowly rebuilt his life, has a stable job in real estate and enjoys the support of family, friends and a new girlfriend.

In an attempt to seek closure, he sought answers from the Education Department in late 2011. Weeks later an offer of financial settlement was made after officials were told of media interest. In February 2012 he was awarded $30,000 in "hush money" after signing a confidentiality clause and an agreement to not contact police.

Former department chief Keith Bartley wrote to him to "unreservedly apologise for our failure to meet your best interests" and admitted officials had "let you down".

At the same time his older brother, 26, died from complications associated with diabetes. Just over a year later another brother, 27, died after a nine-month battle against leukaemia.

"My temperament had become volatile and angry towards family. But when you see someone dying from something that they can't control it gives you the strength to fight against an injustice - it gives you perspective," he said.

In September last year he was struck by the similarities his case had with the Debelle Inquiry into school sex abuse cases and decided to seek some fresh answers from the Government.

His letters to ministers were not answered so he decided to go to the media. The ensuing scandal prompted a formal investigation and the teacher to be suspended on full pay.

He questions how the teacher, now aged in his 40s, was able to continue teaching at two Adelaide schools and criticises the departmental investigation which did not involve formally interviewing the teacher.

"It is not about the teacher - he did what he did and he was punished although he should have been sacked. It is about how people in a position of power can belittle an innocent student," he said.

"Everyone in Naracoorte knows and I have been blown away by the level of support. My parents, particularly my poor mother, have been through a lot but they understand.

"I have the confidence to stand up for myself but the reason why I am fighting this battle is because I would never forgive myself if this was to happen to another student and I never did anything about it."

The teacher, who has previously said the matter was dealt with at the time, will not face criminal charges. He will not face charges after police concluded there was "insufficient evidence".

Mr Weatherill said tonight: "He is an intelligent young man who suffered an enormous amount.

"To his credit, he is thinking about how to improve the system so this doesn't happen to other people. We are working through a number of suggestions he has raised."

Mr Harrison said a "comprehensive review" had been completed.

"As expressed on multiple occasions, the department acknowledges the impact this issue has had on the student and his family," he said.

"Since the student raised the matter, there has been significant support provided to him and regular meetings, telephone calls and other communication to work through the issues he has raised.

"A comprehensive review was also undertaken and the outcomes of the review were provided to the student."

He added: "The Minister and Premier have both met personally with him and a number of ideas he has raised in relation to future student support are currently being considered.

"The student will be informed as matters progress."

Original report here




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