Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Teachers warned off criticism

Teachers are being warned to watch what they write and say about students because of the risk of being sued for defamation. New South Wales schools have also been urged to closely vet student scripts for theatrical performances and postings on school websites, blogs or electronic bulletins. At least one former Year 12 student complained he had been defamed in the school magazine and threatened to sue everyone involved. Parents as well as students have threatened legal action over comments made by teachers or pupils at school.

Education Department lawyer Wayne Freakley [What an appropriate name!] has issued a warning to 50,000 public school teachers across NSW to be "on the lookout" for potentially defamatory material. Mr Freakley urged teachers to "always be circumspect in relation to comments - written or oral - you make about staff, students and parents".

The advice comes as anger has exploded in schools over new student reports which grade students on a scale of A to E for academic performance. Already some parents have expressed disappointment to their school over their child receiving E grades - a scenario many teachers believe labels the student as a failure.

While student reports carry a qualified privilege giving teachers some protection for the comments they make, serious complaints can be made by angry parents. Sources have told The Daily Telegraph teachers need to think carefully before using words such as "lazy", "grumpy" or "moody" when describing a child's behaviour.

Parents and Citizens' Association president Di Giblin believes words such as lazy or phrases such as "can try harder" should not be used. "It is very important when referring to young people that their self-esteem is not damaged," Ms Giblin said. "Try harder doesn't tell a parent anything . . . it is better to say 'needs motivating' or 'is finding it difficult to be engaged in work'. "Without wrapping kids in cotton wool we need to ensure that young people are given a positive outlook and are encouraged to move forward."

Teachers' Federation vice-president Angelo Gavrielatos said threats to sue meant Australia was "importing the worst of American culture". "It reflects, regrettably, that we do live in an increasingly litigious society and that is sad," he said. "All too often we hear threats of litigation . . . and what we are seeing imported into Australia and into our schools is that litigious environment or mindset that is so prevalent in the United States."


Hard to get compensation for even gross bungles from a government hospital system

A man who had a syringe left in his stomach after being operated on by Jayant Patel claims medical examiners have accused him of putting it there himself at a later date. The accusations were allegedly made during examinations leading up to Hans Huhsmann entering into the State Government settlement process intended to compensate victims of the rogue surgeon. The Courier-Mail heard of the allegation through a third party, but when contacted Mr Huhsmann confirmed the exchanges. "It was raised a few times by them in the examinations and I was very upset," he said. "Where do they think I got those things from? "It is very upsetting and now (the syringe) is too deep to remove and no specialists will touch me."

Although confidentiality agreements have drawn a curtain of secrecy around the compensation proceedings, tales of woe are now starting to leak out. And victims are not happy, referring to a process they say has descended into "a sham, a rort and an affront to all victims". One claim is that some patients have been offered settlements despite unstable medical conditions - like Peter Janstrom, who walked away from mediation and has since been told he may lose a testicle. "They tried to finalise it but I thought we would have another go later on," he said. Others claim to have been pushed into signing contracts for "like it or lump it" amounts; and widows have not received funeral costs.

For Vicki Lester, the Government's promise to pay all her medical expenses came to naught. Ms Lester - who has had nine reconstructive and plastic surgery operations and recently self-funded a trip to Sydney to be operated on by a surgeon of her choice - had her expenses claim rejected. In June, acting premier Anna Bligh wrote to say it was because she rejected a government-selected Brisbane surgeon.

Burnett MP Rob Messenger, who exposed Dr Patel's wrongdoings, said lawyers had in some cases received more money than patients. He said a "high level" of frustration had been expressed to him by a number of victims. Mr Messenger said Estimates Committee figures released had found the average payout of the first 69 settlements was $21,500 - $1.4 million went to patients and $900,000 to lawyers.

Attorney-General Kerry Shine's spokesman said yesterday that 154 of the 379 claims had been resolved, but the details of payments would only be released at the end of the mediation process. The spokesman also said medical specialists involved with assessing patients had been selected by legal representatives for the patients from a panel of specialists submitted by the state. Howwever, he would not comment on specific patients.

Bundaberg Victims Patient Support Group chairman Ian Fleming said that if the mediation process were not improved, it should be shut down. "They have no intention of honouring promises to adequately compensate," he said.


No stopping black crime

The rate of Aboriginal imprisonment has increased by almost 55 per cent since 1991 despite more than $400 million spent on programs to cut the rate after the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody. Two reports to be published today say the $400 million in Federal money and a host of state and territory reforms to reduce Aboriginal contact with the justice system have failed to cut imprisonment rates - and there are no signs of improvement.

The reports, by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, say the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal rates of imprisonment continues to grow and is now far greater than the gap between blacks and whites in the United States.

According to one of the reports, Indigenous Over-representation in Prison, the rate of Aboriginal imprisonment has risen 23 per cent in the past six years, despite the huge injection of funds after the publication of the royal commission report in 1991. The director of the bureau, Don Weatherburn, said that while the data gathered for the reports varied, depending on whether it had been adjusted for age or other factors, it was clear the problem was worse than ever - and far worse than in the US.

At the end of 2004 the black male imprisonment rate in the US was 6.95 times the white male imprisonment rate while "the crude [non-age adjusted] imprisonment rate for indigenous Australians is more than 16 times higher than the corresponding imprisonment rate for non-indigenous Australians", the report says.

The royal commission found that the high number of Aboriginal deaths in custody was largely explained by Aboriginal overrepresentation in prison. That finding prompted federal governments to spend $400 million on programs to keep Aborigines out of jail by reducing their economic and social disadvantage and reducing discrimination against them in the justice system. The bureau found this money, along with state legislation to decriminalise public drunkenness, provide alternative punishments and make prison a last resort, had "not met with much success". The bureau found "no evidence of bias on the part of sentencing courts" when dealing with Aborigines.

The reason Aborigines were 2« times more likely than non-Aborigines to be jailed when facing a court was that they had longer criminal records, were convicted of more serious violent offences, committed more multiple offences, often breached previous court orders and were much more likely to have reoffended after being given an alternative to full-time imprisonment such as a suspended sentence.

The reports identified drug and alcohol abuse as the best predictors of Aboriginal imprisonment and said the quickest way to reduce the rate of Aboriginal imprisonment was to cut access to drugs and alcohol. Dr Weatherburn said almost a fifth of the $400 million had gone into treating drug and alcohol programs, but society's "reluctance to tackle the supply side of the equation has seriously constrained out [the] capacity to reduce alcohol-related crime . it makes no sense to preach restraint while increasing availability". He urged a host of measures to cut access to alcohol and drugs by helping Aboriginal people enforce controls that they wanted. "Where the Aboriginal community agrees to restrict supply, it's critical that police enforce that."


Vast expense and waste of resources to dispose of a harmless gas

The same gas we all breathe out! -- and that all plants need

Advocates of the clean coal technology that is being trialled in Queensland say it could be approved for use within five years, but it might be another five years before the system is commercially available. Two members of the Queensland Government's Clean Coal Technology Taskforce - Ian Rose and Paul Greenfield - say the cost of producing power using clean coal technology is currently up to 50 per cent higher than that of using conventional coal-fired power stations. But they also say that as conventional power gets more expensive over the next decade, power produced by clean coal technology will become more economically viable.

Queensland's clean coal technology is being developed in three parts in central Queensland, the first being a gasification plant at Stanwell near Rockhampton, which will strip up to 80 per cent of the CO2 produced in current coal-production methods from the gas used to fire a power station. The second part involves transporting the expunged CO2 in a pipe to the northern Denison Trough near Emerald, and the third involves burying it in an old natural gas field.

Dr Rose, a power generation engineer, said that all three elements of the clean coal project were already in use in various projects around the world, but this was the first time they had all been put together. "There's very good prospects of this all coming together, but it will take some time," he said. Professor Greenfield, senior deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Queensland, said the cost of producing power using clean coal technology was 30-50 per cent higher than conventional methods. "There is no way it could be introduced in a competitive electricity market of the sort we have now, but the price signals will provide an incentive to move in this direction," he said.

The project is being co-ordinated through Stanwell, a power generator fully owned by the Queensland Government, although personnel from Shell are also working on the project. The research backing for the project is coming from the Centre for Low Emission Technology in Brisbane, headed by Kelly Thambimuthu, who was recruited from Canada especially for the project. Dr Thambimuthu is also on the advisory board for the US FutureGen project, which is designed to be the world's first zero-emission coal-fired power station.


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