Elite Sydney school threatens legal action about claims of sexual harassment and a boys’ club culture

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

In the promotional lead-up to the latest episode of Four Corners airing on ABC TV on Monday 4 March, viewers were promised an in-depth investigation of life within the walls of one of Sydney’s most prestigious schools.

And when reporter Louise Milligan revealed legal threats made ahead of the program screening on social media platform, it added to the intrigue:

“We know of SEVEN legal threats before tonight’s #4Corners Cranbrook story,” she wrote. “Power & influence in Australia’s wealthiest enclave. Tune in.”

Despite those “threats”, last night’s program, Old School, delivered allegations of a pervasive and toxic culture and raised one key concept worthy of careful consideration when Ms Milligan introduced the show with a wrap-up of the recent trend for elite private boys’ schools to go co-education.

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“But what’s often lost in all of that,” she said, “is whether institutions like this are safe place for girls”.

When it comes to Cranbrook School for boys – a multi-campus Anglican independent day and boarding school with a history stretching back to 1918 – the answer, judging by the allegations made by former staff members and students at the school, would appear to be a resounding ‘no’.

The report included details of female teachers given fluffy handcuffs by male teenage students, students wolf-whistling and making orgasm noises to a teacher on playground duty and even a student threatening to blackmail a female teacher unless she shared nude photos of herself.

Inviting female students into a worrying school culture

Nestled in some of Sydney’s most sought-after and expensive real estate, overlooking Sydney Harbour, the story of Cranbrook School, in the words of multiple former staff members, is that the school’s toxic culture has a problem with sexualised victimisation and misogyny. And for a single-sex boys’ school about to welcome girls to its student cohort from 2026, it’s a problem that some people say needs to be addressed.

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Jasmin Hyde is a former Cranbrook mathematics teacher who was so concerned about her treatment at the school, she complained to the Australian Human Rights Commission.

“In my experience, Cranbrook did not have a safe, inclusive and supportive culture for me and its female teaching staff,” she told the commission in October 2023.

“That must change. It must change for my sake, and it must change for the sake of your current and future teaching staff, and the many young girls who are about to embark on their studies at Cranbrook.”

Women labelled witches

After completing a law graduate with a degree in pure mathematics, Ms Hyde began her teaching career at Cranbrook in 2018 and was looking forward to what she hoped would be a “long, fulfilling career” at the school.

But that enthusiastic aspiration was soon crushed.

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“Over time, my self-esteem at Cranbrook was diminished,” Ms Hyde told the commission.

“I started to feel unsafe.”

In June 2020, Ms Hyde, a Cranbrook student threatened to accuse Ms Hyde of sexually abusing him if she did not send him nude pictures. The student was suspended and chose to leave the school. The boy also long, apologetic letter to the teacher, saying he was ashamed of and devastated by his behaviour.

“I have caused so much hurt and disappointment to you, my teachers and the wider school community, my friends and my family,” the student wrote.

He explained his letter-writing actions had been an attempt to impress another student at the school who had been bullying the boy because of his race.

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Ms Hyde told the Human Rights Commission that another classmate “loudly announced to his peers” that she “was a witch that deserved to be harassed”.

“He said I 100 per cent deserved what I got.”

Claims male leadership did not take sexual harassment seriously

But when a meeting with Cranbrook headmaster Nicholas Sampson and his deputy Bob Meakin to discuss her concerns ended with Mr Meakin telling Ms Hyde her youth and attractiveness meant it was not surprising that she received attention from the boys, the female teacher told the Human Rights Commission “this is the standard that Cranbrook management condones, the tone from the top – that young, attractive women at your school should not only expect but tolerate sexual harassment”.

“I wonder how the parents of your future female students would feel about this,” Ms Hyde said.

Cranbrook said in a statement that Mr Meakin never intended to offend and “is sorry if [he] has done so”.

Mr Sampson told the Human Rights Commission, “[The] statements by Mr Meakin could have been more thoughtful and the messages delivered in a different way”.

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“The statements, however, were based on a supportive and pastoral intent, and were in no way dismissive of the seriousness of the incident.”

In the school’s response to the Human Rights Commission, Mr Sampson said the school was “not aware” of issues Ms Hyde reported “regarding extremely inappropriate noises, gifts and comments made by students to female teachers”.

“If these had been escalated to a member of the Senior Leadership Team they would have been dealt with appropriately as such behaviour is totally unacceptable,” he said.

But details of slides that formed part of a seminar presentation made by teachers in 2020 about the troubling culture at the school and shared with teaching staff – a seminar delivered with the support of members of the school’s leadership – show that key staff members at Cranbrook were aware of problems its female staff were having years before Ms Hyde’s official complaints were made.

“In my first year here, I would regularly walk past a group of boys on playground duty. They would moan as if making orgasm noises when I walked past,” one teacher said.

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“Boys gave gifts of a bong to one teacher and fluffy handcuffs to another as parting Year 12 gifts. This was not the first time fluffy handcuffs had been gifted in this house,” another said.

“The School recognised that the attitudes and behaviours of some boys was not acceptable and female staff were actively encouraged to report any incidents of this type of behaviour,” Cranbrook said in a statement.

Staff and parents complain about “boys’ club” culture

At the same time teachers were trying to improve the behaviour of Cranbrook boys, the Four Corners; report revealed that some women were also complaining about the “boys’ club” mentality of some senior male school staff members, with multiple letters from female staff and parents addressed to Mr Sampson outlining concerns about the allegedly toxic culture.

Dear Nick, it is important to me that my voice in this situation is heard … As it stands, I’ve lost everything I’ve worked so hard for: my role, my integrity, my confidence, my happiness, my strength.

Female staff member, October 13, 2020

Dear Nick, it is important to me that my voice in this situation is heard … As it stands, I’ve lost everything I’ve worked so hard for: my role, my integrity, my confidence, my happiness, my strength.

Female staff member, October 13, 2020

I am disappointed that it has come to this and that the school will lose yet another hardworking, dedicated, experienced and capable leader as a consequence of being unable or unwilling to eradicate the … toxic culture that exists within pockets of the school.

Female staff member, March 8, 2021

… highly valued teachers … left the school with no explanation … Other teachers who don’t fit the mould have been removed …There is a ‘boys club’ … The focus is on protecting Cranbrook’s reputation at all costs – boys are told ‘don’t get caught’ rather than dealing with underlying unacceptable behaviour.

Parent of school prefect

Alumni of Cranbrook include tech billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes, Kerry and James Packer, and various academics, business high-flyers, politicians, and sports stars.

Disrespected, distressed – and disputed

Former economics teacher Fiona Richards told Four Corners her time at Cranbrook left her “panicked”, “distressed” and “broken”.

“I’ve never felt so disrespected before as a female, and I’ve never felt so humiliated in my working career,” she said.

The former corporate lawyer said she was attracted to what she believed as a progressive school, preparing to go co-ed.

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Instead, she says she found a culture of bullying.

But Cranbrook says there has been no victimisation of women at the school and it has an “inclusive and diverse culture”.

“In the context of the size of the School, [Four Corners’] apparently relatively small sample of alleged issues, while of course extremely disappointing, is not a representative, accurate or complete picture of our culture,” it said.

Six senior women at Cranbrook sent a letter to Four Corners praising Mr Sampson and the culture of the school. They said it was “disturbing and upsetting” that the school was “the subject of a malicious media attack”.

On Sydney radio 2GB yesterday, Cranbrook School Council President Geoff Lovell pushed back on the allegations made in the ABC report and expressed concerns about the program’s intentions to portray a negative image of the school’s leadership and culture.

The school, which charges Year 11 and 12 students $46,497-a-year, had declined invitations by the ABC to appear in an on-camera interview.

“Fifty-eight per cent of our staff are women; we have a good gender balance right across the school,” Mr Lovell said.

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“Women staff are very upset it does not seem to correspond to the lived reality at Cranbrook and ultimately what we do for the students under our care.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]brandx.live