When the national anthem is sung around Elaine, she doesn’t make a noise.

“We’re not disrespectful, we just quietly sit aside and let the song pass,” she said.

Her grandmother was a member of the Stolen Generations, and Elaine said she was physically beaten if she didn’t participate in the anthem in the institutions she was placed in as a child in outback South Australia.

“And if they spoke their language, their mouth was scrubbed with the scrubbing brush,” she said.

“It was written in a time where we had no rights.”

The ABC has chosen not to use Elaine’s real name, to protect her children’s identities.

She said her children are “strong in their culture” and recently retraced her grandmother’s Stolen Generation history.

When her 11-year-old daughter was asked to stand for the national anthem during a music class at her Port Augusta school in February, she refused.

Nearly half the students at Seaview Christian School identified as Indigenous in 2022.(ABC North and West: Isabella Carbone)

“The kids came home and let us know that they were teaching the children the national anthem and also teaching them sign language,” she said.

“Sign language is beautiful, I love that they’re teaching the children that.

“But this song, we explained to them, is something that triggers some First Nations people.”

The ABC understands the child’s name, and the name of another, 12-year-old Aboriginal student who sat with her through the anthem, was written on the board, with both given a lunchtime detention to serve the following day.

Elaine said her daughter did not attend school the next day and was ultimately not required to serve the detention.  

The school, Seaview Christian College, has denied any disciplinary action was taken in relation to the anthem. 

For decades, it has been customary for Australian school students to stand for the national anthem during school assemblies.(Source: A.G. Foster via Trove)

Standing ‘would be the same as singing’

Elaine then contacted the school asking for her children “not to participate” in the anthem.

The school responded with emails seen by the ABC advising that Elaine’s daughter and other children were not required to sing the anthem, but that they would have to stand.

“Students will not receive any repercussions for not singing the National Anthem,” the email from February stated.

“We do ask that at formal events, such as assemblies or town events, when we are asked to stand, that students simply stand to respect the formality of the event.”

Elaine wrote back that she did “not agree to stand to the anthem, as this would be the same as singing the anthem”.

In another email, she said it was “non-negotiable” that her children would “sit silently out of respect for school” during the anthem.

School denies disciplinary action taken over anthem 

Leadership declined an interview and said in a statement to the ABC that a “written offer to meet and discuss the issues further was rejected” by the family.

Emails seen by the ABC reveal the mother was told before the meeting took place she needed “to understand the position of the college”.

“Regarding participation in the national anthem, you have been explicit in stating that you will not abide by the expectations of the college,” the email from school leadership stated.

“The enrolment of every child at Seaview Christian College requires a signed enrolment contract where families commit to fully supporting the college and to respectfully honour the college leadership and their decisions.

“If at any point you find that you can no longer maintain the commitments made in the enrolment contract, we kindly request that you notify us so that we can initiate the process of disenrolment.”

Elaine said she felt she had no choice but to disenrol her children

“When we got the email I refer to as the ultimatum email from the school, I wrote back with how concerned we were that there’s just no room for negotiation,” she said.

“All we were saying was please give the children a choice.”

Advance Australia Fair was officially adopted as the national anthem in 1984.(Source: Peter Dodds McCormick via National Library of Australia)

In its statement to the ABC, Seaview Christian College denied the issue was about the national anthem.

“We respect the individual views of all students and families in regard to the anthem,” it said.

The school reiterated its stance that parents “uphold the principles and values of our school and abide by behavioural standards … for the collective benefit of all students”.

Anthem a source of grief

Advance Australia Fair was composed in 1878 and has been the national anthem since 1984.

The anthem’s lyrics were altered in 2021 from, “For we are young and free” to, “For we are one and free” to recognise the long history of First Nations people.

The original Advance Australia Fair lyrics before the alteration in 2021.(Source: National Library)

Protocols around the anthem are set by the Commonwealth and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

They state that “when the anthem is played at a ceremony or public event, it is customary to stand”.

But there is no formal policy in South Australian schools regarding the anthem, or requiring students to sing or stand while it is sung.

Elaine said her family regarded the school’s stance as a form of “assimilation”.

“You either assimilate or you get out of their school,” she said.

“There’s no room for discussion, there’s no room for negotiation, you either do that or you just get out.”

April Lawrie says cultural safety is important for Aboriginal students.(ABC News: David Frearson)

Commissioner calls response disproportionate

SA’s Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People April Lawrie described the school’s behaviour as “alarming”.

“I think the response from the school doesn’t seem to fit the issue, it’s not proportional,” Commissioner Lawrie said.

The commissioner also said there needed to be more work done to listen to Aboriginal families in the education system.

“Cultural safety is ensuring that anyone from the Aboriginal community can be in a place … and not feel bad about being Aboriginal,” she said.

“That they are not made to feel ashamed, are not made to feel belittled, or embarrassed, or treated harshly for standing up and leading with their cultural identity.

“What I see here is definitely not cultural safety.”

Port Augusta has a strong Aboriginal community, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders comprising 20 per cent of the population, compared to the nationwide average of 3 per cent.

Seaview Christian College’s 2022 annual report stated nearly half of the students identified as Indigenous, yet there were no Indigenous staff listed.

The ABC understands there are still no First Nations staff employed at the college.

Commissioner Lawrie believed that may have been a factor in the dispute escalating to the point the family decided to leave.

“I believe that if there were Aboriginal people involved in the school in helping develop culturally responsive policy and culturally responsive ways of managing issues like this … things would be a lot different,” she said.

Seaview Christian College did not respond to questions from the ABC about its workforce, or whether it would make efforts to hire more Aboriginal staff.

Mick Gooda was the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner between 2010 and 2016.(ABC News: Chris Gillette)

Former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda compared the dispute in Port Augusta to the controversy over the decision of several NRL players not to sing the national anthem for the 2019 State of Origin match.

Mr Gooda said Australia’s national anthem had many different meanings to different people.

“I think people are allowed to be proud and if people are proud, good on them for that, but we don’t all come from the same background and we don’t all have the same experience in Australia,” he said.

Mr Gooda said it was important for children to express themselves in a genuine way, rather than be what he described as “gammon” — a word derived from English that can mean fake or cheap.

“I applaud those students at that school for taking a stand on it and saying, ‘We’re not just going to stand up and be gammon and sing it because everyone else is doing it’.”

Cultural regulation

Elaine has lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission, the Independent Schools Association and the Education Standards Board in South Australia.

South Australia’s Minister for Education, Blair Boyer, declined to comment, but one of his representatives directed the ABC to the Aboriginal Education Strategy, which lists one of its aims as “creating learning environments that respond to students’ cultural needs”.

The 12-year-old student who sat with Elaine’s daughter when she refused to stand for the anthem in the music class told the ABC she served detention the following day.

That girl’s parents have not agitated with the school over the matter, and did not want to be interviewed.

But the mother shared with the ABC a letter drafted by the girl and her sister to the school, dated the week of the incident.

The letter was never sent.

In it, the girls wrote, “Aboriginal people find the ‘National Anthem’ offensive. As it does not represent us in any way or form.”

“And when we are made to sing or stand, you are taking away our rights as Aboriginal people in our land.”

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