By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
Sections of the community are calling for the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to appeal the sentence of a school duty mistress who has walked free after being convicted of sexual offences involving several teenage boys in her care.
The 25-year old former school duty mistress at The Armidale School in New South Wales pleaded guilty in April to 3 counts of aggravated sexual assault and 6 of sexual intercourse with child under her care while employed at the school.
The offences related to boys between the age of 15 and 17 which she was entrusted to supervise at the school’s boarding home.
Aggravated sexual assault is an offence under section 61J of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years’ imprisonment.
It includes the situation where a person engages in sexual intercourse with someone unable to consent, including a person under the age of 16 years.
‘Circumstances of aggravation’ are where:
- at the time of, or immediately before or after, the commission of the offence, the offender intentionally or recklessly inflicts actual bodily harm on the victim or any other person who is present or nearby, or
- at the time of, or immediately before or after, the commission of the offence, the offender threatens to inflict actual bodily harm on the victim or any other person who is present or nearby by means of an offensive weapon or instrument, or
- the offender is in the company of another person/s, or
- the victim is under the age of 16 years, or
- the victim is (whether generally or at the time of the commission of the offence) under the authority of the offender, or
- the victim has a serious physical disability, or
- the victim has a cognitive impairment, or
- the offender breaks and enters into any dwelling-house or other building with the intention of committing the offence or any other serious indictable offence, or
- the offender deprives the victim of his or her liberty for a period before or after the commission of the offence.
The circumstance of aggravation in the present case appears to be that the offender was in a position of authority over her victims.
The offence carries what’s known as a ‘standard non-parole period’ (SNPP), which in this case is 10 years imprisonment. An SNPP is a reference point or guidepost for a sentencing judge when deciding the minimum term (or non-parole period) that a person must spend behind bars before becoming eligible for release from custody on parole.
The remaining 6 offences relate to having sexual intercourse with teenagers under the woman’s ‘special care’.
By way of explanation, although the age of consent in NSW is 16 years, section 73 of the Crimes Act makes it an offence for a person to have sexual intercourse with anyone between 16 and 18 years of age who is under their ‘special care’.
A relationship of ‘special care’ arises where the defendant:
- Is the complainant’s step-parent, guardian or foster parent, or the de facto partner of one of those people, or
- Is a member of the teaching staff of the school at which the complainant is a student, or
- Has an established personal relationship with the complainant in connection with the provision of religious, sporting, musical or other instruction, or
- Is a custodial officer where the complainant is an inmate, or
- Is the complainant’s health professional.
The maximum penalty where the victim is between 17 and 18 years of age is 4 years’ imprisonment, or 8 years where the victim is between 16 and 17.
- sexual connection occasioned by the penetration to any extent of the genitalia (including a surgically constructed vagina) of a female person or the anus of any person by:
- any part of the body of another person, or
- any object manipulated by another person, or
- sexual connection occasioned by the introduction of any part of the penis of a person into the mouth of another person, or
- cunnilingus, or
- the continuation of any of the above conduct.
Sexual intercourse does not include penetration carried out for proper medical purposes.
Submissions during sentencing
Judge Armitage of the NSW District Court heard that the woman (whose name has been supressed) had sexual intercourse with five students between 2014 and 2015, after inviting them to her room.
Her defence lawyer submitted that her client continued the sexual encounters because she was worried the boys would report her.
His Honour, however, found that the text messages between the woman and some of the boys showed the offender’s “enthusiastic participation” in the encounters and a degree of “excitement”.
The Judge handed down a suspended sentence and allowed the woman to walk free, noting she had already spent 14 and a half months in custody on remand awaiting the finalisation of her case.
His Honour noted the offender had suffered psychological distress while on remand, where fellow inmates called her a “kiddie fiddler”.
However, victims’ groups have criticised the sentences ‘too lenient’ and ‘gender biased’, and are concerned it sets a ‘dangerous precedent’.
They say the woman’s defence amounts to ‘victim blaming’, and that preying on children should not be tolerated regardless of the offender’s gender.
They add that had the offender been a man preying on teenage girls, he would likely have been sentenced to several years behind bars.
Bravehearts founder Hetty Johnston says the sentence “defies any kind of logic” and should be appealed immediately. He adds that male and female offending needs to be treated the same way.
While Judge Armitage has acknowledged the sentence as “lenient”, his Honour explained that it was “difficult to see” how the woman chose to sleep overnight in a boarding house with young teenage males.
“The potential for trouble of precisely the kind that occurred was, I think, obvious,” he remarked.
“The offending occurred in extremely unusual circumstances in the context of a very small age difference between the offender and her victims, adding that the woman herself was “extremely psychologically vulnerable”.
The DPP will now consider appealing the sentence on the basis it is manifestly inadequate.