Transcript

This transcript was generously sponsored by James Barron. It has been lightly edited for clarity

Nigel Studdart: My background is I started out as a cardiac research scientist back in Liverpool. I've got an Honor's Degree in Science and I was in the middle of a PhD when I took off sailing and left for 20 years, and immigrated to New Zealand five years ago. I went back into teaching and was teaching at a Catholic school. I teach science, I teach chemistry and I teach biology.

The incident occurred when the principal of the school, Richard Stanton, wrote a newsletter entitled "Keeping Marriage Sacred." The Catholic school has a right under Catholic doctrine to have an opinion on marriage. I didn't argue with that opinion on marriage. I disagree with it, but that's my personal opinion and I would not have tried to in any way influence the school's opinion. Where I believe the principal went too far, in my opinion, was when he extended that argument in terms of gay parents. And what he in effect said there was that gay parents were in some way lesser parents than any other form of parent. Now, as a teacher with students that I knew had gay parents, and also with gay students in the school, for me that was fundamentally wrong.

It was also a case of free speech for my students. I didn't get involved in it at first; I got involved in it as it developed, when he had in effect said to me in an email that he wanted to encourage discussion about this. But when the discussion was not going in the way and the direction that he wanted to go in he then chose to try and shut that discussion down.

Now, if we do one thing in the school, and the one thing we must do well, surely it's teaching our children to have an opinion and to question an opinion and to engage in constructive debate. Regardless of your religious, ethical or moral beliefs, I believe everybody has a right to that debate, and I think what the school was doing there, from my opinion, was shutting that debate down. To me it's fundamentally wrong.

That then of course occurred the week before the first vote on Louisa's Bill, and as a result – I mean it was very naïve of them, I think, to publish that in a newsletter on the Friday the week before the Bill and not really expect that there would be publicity – he then went ahead and suspended me when the students were planning gay protests at the school assembly. They were planning this protest to wear a rainbow ribbon at the school assembly in support of other students. Again, to me that seemed like a very good idea in that it was showing an inclusiveness.

Now, the school is a Marist school and one of the fundamental ideas at that school is tolerance, so to me the students were showing incredible Marist values and they were showing a real – how can I put it? – empathy almost beyond their age in that they were actually really welcoming students into the school and gay parents. And I thought to actually take that away was something that was very wrong.

What the rainbow ribbon symbolized to me and what it symbolized to the students was support for those gay students and gay parents. But more than that, if we look at the rainbow it's made up of seven colors. White light comes from those seven colors. Each color is critical to a contribution to that light. Now, just as every race and every creed contributes to our society so does every sexual gender and transgender contribute to our society. Without those colors we do not have white light. Without light we have no transparency, and without transparency we can't see what's going on in the world. And I think that openness to truth is the way that New Zealand education needs to go.

What I find quite amazing is the second newsletter he wrote was one which was Diligere Verum, which was to "Love for the Truth." Well to me surely this is loving the truth, everybody's truth, and listening to everybody's truth and giving them the opportunity for personal expression.

Gareth: This situation created quite a lot of media attention, both locally and nationally. What impact did that have on you?

Nigel: Quite a large impact. I mean, again, it was a real explosion of attention. It had started when my daughters had contacted the media, and as had other students in the school. I was actually phoned for permission for one of my daughters to appear on Close Up. By that stage it had got quite frightening for many of the students just in terms of all the attention, but also they were worried about repercussions at the school.

When I was then suspended on that morning, which was the morning which I appeared on Close Up, I then decided that I would go on Close Up and appear because I knew that the students were afraid to do so and they didn't want to put themselves in a situation where they could possibly face some victimization from anybody, either other students or anybody else. So I think it was important that their voice was heard and that was the only way I could see of doing it.

I must admit I didn't give it a huge amount of thought before I did it. I just knew it was the right thing to do, and sometimes I believe we have to go with that; we have to go away from what we should do or what we shouldn't do and just fundamentally bring things down to: Is this the right thing to do or is it the wrong thing to do? For me to support those students as their teacher was fundamentally my job above any other.

Gareth: What effect did that media attention have on you and your life?

Nigel: In many ways positive effects. I had incredible support from the gay and lesbian transgender community, lots of people contacting me, some real heartfelt messages from people who'd been in Catholic schools and other schools and their teachers had been afraid to say something and they felt excluded, they felt isolated, and I think it gave a lot of people strength that somebody had been prepared to say something. You know, I didn't even really think all that through.

My family were incredibly proud of me for doing it and I think it strengthened our bond as a family. We're the sort of family who sits down to dinner every night or sits down to breakfast and we talk, and this whole situation arose from a family discussion. I'd gotten home on a Friday evening and we were chatting as a family about this, and we'd read the school newsletter and we were all appalled. You know, we're a fairly liberal family: I've travelled all over the world, my wife is a midwife and is used to working with all sorts of different communities, and my kids are really sort of open to ideas; so it wasn't just me, it was my family, and this was an initiative from all of us.

And as a result, whilst it has had some financial impact, obviously, on my family, that I lost my job over it, which is quite saddening, it also had an impact in terms of the fact that I was on a scholarship, which means I may yet have to pay that scholarship back in terms of teacher education, in terms of my registration as a teacher because I'm at the end of a two-year program and to my knowledge the principal is unlikely to be signing off on my provisional registration at this point. So, quite a lot of impacts in that way, but as a family I think we're stronger for it.

And I'm proud of what I did and I think it's something that had to be done. It comes back to the WikiLeaks things doesn't it, you know, with people like Julian Assange? And I think it's critical that we galvanize and we support the whistleblower in society because ultimately there is nothing that should happen in a school or a classroom, excluding personal or private issues for students, which should not be open to public scrutiny or question.

And I think to have this sort of newsletter that was to my mind certainly just wrong, it should not be there. It may be Richard Stanton's personal opinion, and if it is well he's entitled to it just like I'm entitled to my personal opinion, but I do not believe that a school newsletter is the place to put it. The emotional safety of the students in that school, let alone the physical safety of those students in that school, means that we have to be all inclusive. As a Catholic school it accepts non-Catholic students, it's an integrated school, it's funded by the taxpayer, the buildings are funded, sure, by the proprietor, which is a Catholic church, but my salary as a teacher was paid for by the taxpayer. We have a responsibility to all of those students, not just to the Catholic students, but especially to the Catholic students and their special character, but we have a responsibility to be honest and transparent with all of those students.

Gareth: Prior to this incident were there things like a Queer Straight Alliance at the school or anything where gay, lesbian, and transgender students were kind of openly out?

Nigel: No. No. I mean, the other chap who appeared on the Close Up programs, Zac Klavs, a really nice guy, I think addressed that to a certain extent that yes, there was a little bit of prejudice but no more than you would expect in any high school. Anybody who is slightly different in any way.... You remember, I'm sure, what it was like being a teenager – everybody wants to be exactly the same and if you're ever so slightly different in any way you try and hide it, you know?

No, there wasn't a Queer Straight Alliance, and up until that point I would have said the school was a really inclusive place. You know, the staff there are superb; they really are, they're excellent. I think what's happened has polarized the school and I think that's not a good thing. I think now the school needs a Queer Straight Alliance and I think it needs that so that the students are supported, because whenever you get a division like this....

Before that really it was a very minor issue in the school. I found it a very friendly school to work in, superb teachers, the students were... I mean, if you look at the Facebook pages that came up at that time this was the students supporting other students, it wasn't the students victimizing or bullying other students. This was students saying no, I am not going to sign up to any form of prejudice. So if anything I'd say it's the opposite, that the support for gay and queer students in that school was really good from the other students and from many, many of the staff.

I think what happened with Richard Stanton's newsletter is he polarized the school. Once you get that degree of polarization then inevitably when you start pushing people out to the poles you end up with serious issues in terms of trying to bring them back together again so you can raise discussion. And I think that's what needs to happen now. You need some healing to try and bring back and raise discussion. To my knowledge that has not happened yet.

Gareth: What about reaction from other staff? What's been the interaction between other staff and you since?

Nigel: Great. I have no problem with other staff. I've had contact with many, many of the staff who've been incredibly supportive, many of whom are very – how can I put it? – worried. They're very nervous of losing their job. I mean, when you see what's happened to me, you know, I've had several staff say to me, well I'll be next because I've always been with you on things like this.

And I think there's definitely an atmosphere there that needs to be addressed because it is not healthy to have a situation where you've got this form of authoritarian dominance, which certainly in my opinion that authoritarian dominance is not a healthy or constructive atmosphere to have. It should be a cohesive whole where people talk to each other, where people support each other. I know several teachers who've said to me they don't go to the staff room, they're staying in the resource areas, they're staying away from coming together.

It's coming to the end of the school year; next week is the end of the school year. I was told a week or so ago that currently nine teachers are leaving that school. I see there's five adverts on the Education Gazette. There's 39 staff in the school, so even at the lowest estimate of five that is a significant percentage of staff that are leaving the school. That's not healthy and it's a great shame. At the highest estimate we're getting on close for what, a quarter of the staff that will be changing? And this is in a time when finding a job as a teacher is not easy. I mean, for me looking for another job I'm looking at having to drive perhaps next term at least an hour each end of the day to get to another job to be able to teach just because there are not the jobs available at present, just as the economy itself is having difficulties.

Gareth: And in terms of contact with the students, have you had much contact with them?

Nigel: Oh yeah, I've been teaching them. I mean, this happened.... If we come back to the actual fundamental job of a school it's to educate people and to help turn them out in rounded human beings who are tolerant and kind, just nice people and people we want in society. This happened seven weeks or thereabouts before the final exams. I was the teacher in charge of chemistry. There are three teachers, four teachers that there were in the Science Department at that time. I was one of two that had any experience of teaching NCEA before, so there were two teachers that had been hired the previous year who hadn't taught NCEA senior sciences before, so we got a serious impact on the Science Department by suspending a science teacher at that point.

So I had a year 13 chemistry class, a year 12 chemistry class, a year 11 science class, teaching level one, plus my year 10 class that I was accelerating to level one; so a lot of students preparing for exams. So yes, I've had a lot of contact with students because I've been teaching them at my house, doing private tutorials for their parents bringing them to the house so that I could help prepare them for the exams. I started doing that for nothing, just for free in town after school, and a local business, LJ Hooker in Whangarei actually donated a building for me to use to do it in the center of town.

Then I had, after I got a letter from the board stating that I was not allowed to have any contact with students during my suspension, in effect, and it could be seen as threatening behavior, I had to stop doing that. Once I was fired by the school I immediately started doing it again just to help students, and now I'm at a small charge just to cover my costs in doing it.

But hopefully, I mean the letters that I've had from parents and the support I've had from parents has been amazing, incredible support from parents, a lot of people very unhappy with the Pompallier Catholic College Board right now, and I think they need to address that. I've asked, under the Freedom of Information Act, to get the Board minutes from the meetings, and I've asked the union to also ask for all the letters that they've received from parents in terms of their, you know, both for and against just so we can have a look at the whole thing in the round and see is the Board currently serving the interests of Pompallier Catholic College?

Gareth: Just finally, if you were to reflect back on this whole experience and you were to try and impart a message to your students and students in other schools, what would that be?

Nigel: Speak up. Don't ever let anybody tell you you have no right to an opinion. And I think that is probably the most fundamental thing that we're discussing here: the right to everybody to free speech. And I know that seems like we should be saying this back in the '50s or the '60s. You know, I thought we fought all these battles, I really did, but even today that exists, even today we have people afraid to speak up, especially teachers. You know, I think we've got teachers who basically are told that they must follow what the principal says, regardless. When this happened I went to the principal, I went to his deputy, I went to the Secretary for the Board, the Staff Representative for the Board of Trustees. I got absolutely nowhere with any of them, and then I supported the students in what they were doing.

My message to every student out there and every teacher out there is: Follow your conscience, follow your own ethical code, and if necessary speak up. You must speak up because if we look at the youth suicide rate, and in particular the suicide rate in Northland is just horrendous, but as that applies I think today we heard in the Conference that that can be running at eight, nine, ten times the normal youth suicide rate. If you save one life by speaking up, well forget everything else, you've done the right thing.

Transcript by cyberscrivener.com