To the Department of Education and Training, NSW Department of Education, and NSW Education Standards Authority,
We, the undersigned Australian writers and teachers (including tertiary teachers), value the focus given to Australian literature in the curriculum and the passion many school teachers have for exploring and promoting the work of contemporary writers. But this week the honour of being selected for study turned ugly for our respected fellow writer Ellen van Neerven, who was subjected to online abuse by students tasked with responding to her poetry in a HSC exam (screenshots have been collected and can be provided). We write to condemn this harassment and urge you to issue a statement in response.
On Monday, October 16, Andrew Taylor reported in The Sydney Morning Herald that Ellen was contacted by students who asked her to explain her poem, while others ‘expressed frustration and contempt’, sent blatantly offensive memes, and ‘descended to racist and vulgar abuse prompting authors to criticise the actions of HSC students.’ We agree with poet Evelyn Araluen who stated, ‘It's not cute, it's harassment’.
According to another article by Osman Faruqi, published in Junkee on October 17, Year 12 students in NSW posted abusive content to a public Facebook HSC group with thousands of members (since changed to private) but ‘soon migrated to Twitter’ where students began harassing Ellen both via public and private messaging. The students also trolled writers who came to Ellen’s defence (this is ongoing at the time of writing). As Faruqi points out, this is not the first time writers have been harassed and abused during HSC exams; a ‘number of prominent Australian writers’ confirmed it has occurred in previous years.
Several writers reported this activity to the NSW Department of Education and the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA), but Junkee states that when approached for comment a spokesperson for NESA maintained they weren’t ‘aware of any complaints or the online abuse’. This is a completely inadequate response.
We stand with Ellen van Neerven and any other writers who have been abused and we call on your departments to issue a statement making it clear that no amount of exam stress can justify this type of behaviour, and that you will be working with teachers and parents to educate students about the harms of online abuse and further develop strategies that help students prepare more effectively for exams in the future. We also ask you to carefully consider whether a student who responds to an exam question in this way deserves to face consequences. Parents have a responsibility to support their children’s learning in constructive ways, to help them manage the stress of the HSC, and to educate them about racism, but we feel it is your responsibility to discuss this problem with parents formally and to put measures in place to address it.
Finally, we assert the right for everyone to live in an Australia that does not tolerate racism nor turn a blind eye to it when it does occur. The abuse and public harassment to which Ellen has been subjected cannot be tacitly supported by your continuing silence.
EDITED: We acknowledge the statement made by NESA CEO David de Carvalho in an article by ABC News Online (byline Paige Cockburn, posted 8.31pm Oct 17) describing the harassment and abuse as 'a completely inappropriate response' and calling on the students involved to apologise to Ellen van Neerven. This does not sufficiently address our concerns or constitute the kind of public statement we have requested. We ask that your Departments commit to enacting measures toward ensuring there are no further incidents of this kind. Until a public statement of that nature is forthcoming this letter stands.
This open letter has been written by Australian women writers in support of, and solidarity with, Ellen van Neerven and other writers who have experienced harassment by HSC students. It will be served on Monday, October 23. We invite Australian writers and teachers to sign on, stating only your full name, email (not published), and whether you identify as a writer or teacher (or both) in the comments section. Please share widely and remind people of the Monday 9am deadline.