A dad contacted me about a breach of privacy that hurt his daughter.
He asks that in telling his story I call him Sam and his daughter Anna.
Anna, who is twelve, didn’t want to chat when Sam picked her up from school on Thursday. He didn’t think much of it, because she was often tired and uncommunicative after school. It also wasn’t unusual for her to toss her school bag down without clearing it of leftover lunch paraphernalia or taking out her homework. He’d learned not to stress about it. All he had to do was casually remind her.
Once she had the memory jog then she’d do a good job of emptying her bag and putting everything in the right place, the lunch wrapper and the banana skin in the bin, her drink bottle on the sink and her homework file on the kitchen table. Usually.
Except for days like this. All he said was “Hey Anna, you know you need to clean out your school bag, right?”
She took her bag and stomped into her bedroom and when he tried to follow her, she shut the door in his face with a loud bang. He couldn’t help the flash of anger that had him straight away wanting to confront her. He would have burst into her room, but she was holding the doorknob against him. He would have forced it open, but for the invisible voice of his ex-wife that was more audible to him now than it had been when they’d lived together: step back and take a few breaths. As he puffed up his chest, he brooded, as was his want at such times, about when he was a little kid. He revisited the terror and outrage he’d expended trashing the house when his mum shut herself away for hours in her bedroom. But he was the grown-up now and the person shutting him out was not a narcissistic adult but an upset child.
Anna was like him. She needed certain things to self-soothe.
He made a chocolate drink and returned to her door. He could hear her tearing up paper. No big deal. He knocked, softly.
“Anna it’s okay if you don’t want unpack your bag today. I’ll do it. Come out and have your drink and relax with the iPad.”
The paper shredding noise stopped, but she didn’t answer. He breathed. He returned to the kitchen to put the glass of milk on the table. He looked at the spot in the corner where she might have thrown down her bag and the empty space filled him with desolation. He hurried to his room to sit at the computer and check the mail and play a little solitaire. He became so absorbed in the activity that he was slow to register the sound of Anna’s door opening and her feet plodding past his room to the kitchen.
A couple of hours later he was making Anna’s favourite meal, plain pasta and cheese, with some steamed cauliflower on the side. For himself he would mix the pasta with Woolworths' Bolognese sauce from a jar. From the kitchen, which opened into the living room, he could see Anna sitting in front of the television, playing a game on the tablet on her lap. About now he would normally broach the subject of homework, casually mentioning that they would spend half an hour on it after dinner. Today he wouldn’t do that. She was in her post-meltdown mode. Shut down.
He wasn’t going to stir her pain. But while she had her eyes on her game, he could casually do a little sleuthing for clues as to what had set her off.
In her bedroom he discovered a school notice about the sports’ carnival, torn to shreds on her bed. The contents of her bag - gym shoes, sports tunic, books, pencils, lunch bag - were strewn on the floor. He hung up her sports tunic and put her sneakers on the shoe rack. He put the pencils back in their case and returned them and a couple of books to the bag but the torn paper he left on the bed. He returned to the kitchen with her lunch box, to dispose of the lunch wrapper and rinse out her drink bottle. She kept her eyes on her game. He might have been invisible for all the attention she paid him.
‘Let’s eat,” he said, as he turned on the television and they ate dinner together watching a Japanese dating show. Usually it made them laugh. Not tonight. After dinner and the show, he asked, "Got any homework?"
She spoke in a scary machine voice, talking like an alien robot: “I’m not going to do homework tonight.”
He responded in a neutral mode. “If you’re upset about anything, Anna, you know you can tell me.”
“Yeah Dad. I know,” she said, and now her tone was human, soft enough to give him hope.
“Tomorrow might be a better day,” he ventured.
“Is that a fact?”
“It’s a possibility.”
“Maybe. If I can stay home from the sports carnival.”
“Uh huh. Mmm. Last week you were all good with me signing the permission for you to go. Something bad must have happened to make you change your mind.”
She nodded, and he could hear from her sniffles that she was crying but he kept his gaze on the TV. He knew not to shut her down by establishing any eye contact.
She said it was the captain of the softball team, her friend, Majeda, who’d asked, out of nowhere, “Anna, have you got Autism?”
“Are you kidding me?” Sam said,
“Majeda said to me: There’s a picture of you up on the wall in the room where they keep the sports equipment. There’s, like, a photo of you next one of Billie, you know, the funny boy in Year 5? Yeah, and there’s, like, photos of six other disabilities’ kids.”
She said that some other kids who had seen that line-up of photos were saying Anna had autism. So, did she?
Anna said she told Majeda that it was none of her business and she hated her and hoped she would die. Now she wished she hadn’t said that.
“The school breached your privacy,” shouted Sam, clenching his fists.
He felt like breaking something, maybe punching the wall. But he would save his anger for tomorrow when he would go and confront the school.
“I just wish she was still my friend.”
“You were upset,” said Sam. “It was a shock. If she’s a real friend, she will get that. You just have to say you’re sorry.”
“You know I can’t say it.”
“Can you write it in a text?”
“You could message her that your Dad said it’s good she you told you what she saw - that’s a breach of privacy - and I’m going to get those pictures taken down.”
“You bet I will.”
The next day Sam let Anna stay home from school. He went there himself with all the righteous anger he had saved up to advocate for his daughter’s rights. He told the Principal why Anna was at home and he demanded that she explain and apologise for how his daughter’s privacy had been so breached.
The Principal apologised right away. Yes, it was a breach of privacy. Good. She admitted it. She promised she would get the photos taken down. But next thing, she was making excuses for the sports teachers who’d put up the photos of students with special needs in the equipment room.
“It is in these students’ best interests for sports teachers to know who they are so they can make allowances for their differences.”
Sam came right back at her with “Why single her out? Why can’t you make allowances for everybody’s differences?”
In response, the Principal laughed and murmured something about the role of competition in sport.
“You have all the answers,” said Sam, keeping his voice level. “But my daughter’s privacy has been breached. I could take this further –"
“I agree with you Sam,” the Principal said quickly, “that this should never have happened. You have my word. We will take the pictures down. We will update our policies and procedures.”
The acknowledgement was gratifying. Sam felt he was getting the edge.
“We can’t change what’s happened,” he said, starting his negotiations with the voice of reason, before upping up the ante. “But you can explain to me how you are going to clean up your processes so that this never happens again. And you can organise some counselling for my daughter and some education of the whole school community!”
She agreed to the lot. Ha! He walked out with a bit of a strut. And carried it home. Anna could feel it in swift way he opened the door and the casual but precise manoeuvre he accomplished tossing his keys into the basket on the kitchen table. She kept her eyes on her laptop, but she listened to every word of how he’d handled the school and demanded redress of the abuse of her rights.
“Good one, Dad,” she said. “But no way am I going to counselling.”