Former gap year student working at Grammar convicted

A FORMER employee at Gippsland Grammar in Sale was convicted in the County Court on Thursday after earlier pleading guilty to child sex offences involving two female students, aged 14 and 15.

Tristan Van der Watt, a gap year student, had been working in a semi-supervisory role at Blackwood House, the school’s boarding house.

Van der Watt, from South Africa, pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual penetration of a child under 16 and one count of encouraging a child to have, or be involved in, sexual activity.

He committed the offences between June and December last year, at the age of 20.

Federal Police arrested him on December 9 as he was attempting to board a plane to South Africa.

Van der Watt was sentenced last week to three years in prison with a minimum of one year and eight months.

During the sentencing hearing, Judge Paul Higham was critical of the school’s failure to dismiss Van der Watt after one of the victims reported he had invited her to his room “for a cuddle” via social media.

Van der Watt was instead given a warning and was told not to contact students via social media.

In June last year he crashed a car and was charged in relation to dangerous driving and excess alcohol offences.

“Astonishingly you were again permitted to remain at the school despite your demonstrated unsuitability for the role,” Judge Higham said.

He said Van der Watt encouraged one of his victims to help him pursue the other, quoting him as saying: “That’s the thing. We won’t get caught. You know that as well. Please just talk to her. Trust me, I don’t want to get caught any more than she does …”

Several instances of offending occurred before a male student became suspicious and reported Van der Watt to the school, which evicted him and called in police.

Judge Higham noted one victim’s mother reported her daughter had since self-harmed and required counselling, and her regret at sending her to the school.

But he also noted Van der Watt’s early guilty plea, remorse, prior good conduct and prospects of rehabilitation.

Judge Higham said Van der Watt did not have the authority of a teacher, but he was tasked with the wellbeing of students in his care, and that role “had boundaries”.

“You demonstrated what I consider to be a stark unsuitability for the role and yet you were allowed to continue in the role,” Judge Higham said.

“Feeling alone and isolated, you sought sexual intimacy with the children who were in the care of the school and with whom you had daily interaction.”

Judge Higham said Van der Watt’s behaviour had been “predatory”, but had not involved threats or violence.

He acknowledged the burden of prison would be difficult for Van der Watt, being a young man a long way from home and family, adding his mother was of modest means and would be unlikely to be able to visit him, even if it were not for current coronavirus travel restrictions.

In a letter to parents last week, new Gippsland Grammar principal Leisa Harper, who was not at the school at the time the offences took place, said the school was “ashamed that an individual affiliated with the school has betrayed the trust placed in him, and the school, by our students and their parents”.

She said now that the court process was complete, the school would investigate what had happened and commission a review of the school’s child safe policies and procedures.

The school has also arranged for the Australian Boarding Schools Association to review boarding arrangements at Blackwood House.

“The school hopes that today’s sentencing will enable the children and families affected to begin the healing process,” she said.

“The school will be supporting the children and their families.

“At the same time, we will respect their privacy, and I ask that our school community do the same.

“Gippsland Grammar’s priority must be the protection and welfare of its students.

“As principal, I am determined to ensure our school is safe for all of our students.”

Van der Watt was sentenced to three years in prison, with a minimum of one year and eight months.

Van der Watt had already served 136 days on remand, at the time of sentencing.

He is now a registered sex offender for life.

Judge Higham said he understood Australian Federal Police would notify South African authorities of his conviction. Van der Watt is expected to be deported to South Africa on release.