Education Department sanctions former principal over asbestos saga

“She was the hardest working principal I’ve ever had,” he told the inquiry.

“She was incredibly hardworking and incredibly driven for her school to be a high-achieving school.

“I believe it was intentional and I believe it was driven by a desire for HSC results to just keep getting better. That’s my best hypothesis.”

Brewer was invited to give evidence at the inquiry but was not in attendance.

Education Department executive director of professional and ethical standards Daryl Currie said there was no evidence of an intentional cover-up and that human error was at the center of the situation.

Retired Castle Hill High School Principal Vicki Brewer

Retired Castle Hill High School Principal Vicki BrewerCredit:Department of Education

“[The 2016 test results] were in the inbox of a junior employee,” he told the inquiry.

“There was no evidence that it had been sighted by anybody else.”

Separately to the 2016 sample, the Education Department found asbestos at Castle Hill High School in 2020 through proactive monitoring activities, with remediation and air monitoring carried out in 2020 and 2021, the inquiry heard.

Parent Elizabeth Madders said the school community had been left completely in the dark through the years-long asbestos saga.

“We’ve lost all faith in the school, the Department of Education and school infrastructure,” she told the inquiry. “Parents have been asked to accept the unacceptable.”

She said parents had been met with a “wall of silence” when attempting to find out the truth of what happened between 2016 and 2020.

“Parents send their children to school and think, ‘Is today the day they will breathe in deadly asbestos into their lungs?’ “she said.

School Infrastructure NSW chief executive Anthony Manning told the inquiry that, at the heart of the six-year delay in action over the 2016 test, was that the school did not follow proper procedure when asbestos concerns were first raised.

“Unfortunately, in this case, the school did not contact the asset management unit when it should have and the AMU’s help and expertise was not immediately enlisted,” he said.

Manning acknowledged the concern raised among staff and parents and apologised for the “breakdown” that had occurred.

“There have been errors of judgment by senior members of the school staff that should not have occurred,” he said.

Manning said the long-term historic risk of exposure to asbestos at the school was considered to be low.

The issue was first brought to light publicly by Castle Hill MP Ray Williams, who became aware of the positive 2016 asbestos results in May.

Speaking at the inquiry, he defended Brewer, saying she had been an outstanding principal for the school.

“The academic achievement of that particular school, I think, speaks volumes on behalf of her ability as a principal,” Williams said.

Williams said he wanted an independent investigation into whether the school was safe for housing today.

A spokesperson for the Education Department said she was confident there were no current asbestos issues at the school and all relevant clearance certificates had been provided by an independent hygienist.

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Speaking after the hearing, Labor member of the upper house education committee Courtney Houssos said she was concerned that responsibility over asbestos in schools rested with principals, requiring them to be “site managers”.

“There is a clear need for more oversight from the Department of Education and we call on them today to conduct an audit of buildings to ensure that this doesn’t happen again,” she said.

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