Youth mobs drive teachers from Australia town

Gate of the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy Image copyright Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Image caption The Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy is closed for the second time in two weeks

Carjackings, children armed with axes and machetes and teachers airlifted out for their own safety are not the kind of scenes witnessed in most Australian towns. But in the Aboriginal community of Aurukun, in Queensland's remote Cape York, they have become familiar of late says journalist Kathy Marks.

On Wednesday, after the headmaster of Aurukun's primary school was carjacked for the second time in two weeks, children as young as six threw rocks at homes in town after dark.

Teachers were evacuated from the community after the first carjacking and had only returned at the beginning of the week. After Wednesday's attack, the state government evacuated them again and have closed the school until July.

It marks another low point for a troubled community with a history of unrest and violence, caused by complex factors including alcohol and drug abuse, family breakdown, and long-standing tensions between the five clans which make up the 1,300-strong community.

Residents and community support staff say that Aurukun's mostly law-abiding population is angered by the actions of about 30 "disengaged" children and young people believed to be responsible for most of the recent disturbances.

'Handful of troublemakers'

But what frustrates locals even more is the apparent failure of government to provide adequate security for teachers and what they see as a softly-softly approach by Aurukun police. Footage circulated earlier this month showed officers standing by during a public brawl.

Senior police have defended their actions, saying the complex tribal relations between Aurukun residents means intervening in conflicts has the potential to escalate the situation.

In a statement this week, the Wik Women's Group, representing the community's female elders, noted that although one in three head teachers across Australia had been physically attacked, according to recent reports, their schools had not been closed.

Image copyright Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Image caption Residents of Aurukun say a relatively small number of young people are responsible for violence and crime in the town

"Nowhere else in Australia would a government condone shutting down a school due to the incompetence of police to pull into line a handful of troublemakers," they said.

Along with other Cape York communities, Aurukun has had funding and services poured into it in recent years, and has also been a testing-ground for policies such as "income management", where welfare payments are credited to a card which can only be used to buy food and essential supplies.

David Glasgow, head of the Family Responsibilities Commission, a statutory body created by government in conjunction with Cape York residents to improve parenting, community safety and school attendance, told the BBC that the situation in Aurukun had "slid backwards" over the past 18 months.

He blamed a big influx of new faces, including into the police force, which had eroded community trust, as well as an ongoing dispute about a bauxite mining project on Aboriginal land, and the employment at Aurukun's health clinic last year of a man who allegedly faked his nurse credentials. He is facing trial on 115 charges including fraud, assault, supplying drugs and unlawful wounding.

Repeat offenders

Although the community is officially "dry", alcohol is periodically smuggled in. Mr Glasgow, who visits regularly, was in town earlier this week. "On Tuesday night the grog came in and the noise went on into the small hours," he said. "The next day there were only 88 kids in school."

Image caption Aurukun is located on Cape York in far-north Queensland

The latest wave began a fortnight ago, when youths allegedly tried to break into two teachers' homes, threatened the principal, Scott Fatnova, with an axe and stole his car. Twenty-five teachers were evacuated, but most returned last week. Then last weekend, despite the presence of extra police and security guards, Mr Fatnova was threatened and carjacked, this time by youths wielding knives and machetes.

Many of the children and young people who roam the streets at night are not attending school. In some cases, their parents are absent, and they are living with grandparents or other relatives who "can't control them", according to Mr Glasgow.

The Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, flew to Aurukun on Friday, along with the state's Aboriginal affairs minister, Curtis Pitt, and the Police Commissioner, Ian Stewart. But there is a widespread view that the community has to step up and solve its own problems.

The mayor, Dereck Walpo, told a recent community meeting: "You [parents] should be ashamed of yourselves for not playing your part. It's more than a lack of respect and a lack of discipline. It's neglect."

Mr Glasgow said that, although inter-clan tensions meant it was sometimes "like Beirut up there", Aurukun residents were united in "wanting the fighting to stop, wanting the drunkenness to stop, wanting the kids to be looked after properly".

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