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Claims teacher lied to anti-Semitic probe

A Melbourne school teacher being sued by five former students for racial discrimination has been accused of lying to an investigation into anti-Semitic bullying.

Brighton Secondary College teacher Demi Flessa on Tuesday appeared as a witness at a Federal Court trial brought by Jewish students against her, another teacher Paul Varney, principal Richard Minack, the school and the state.

Ex-students Joel and Matt Kaplan, Liam Arnold-Levy, Guy Cohen and Zack Snelling allege they experienced anti-Semitic bullying, discrimination and negligence at the school between 2013 and 2020.

Their claims are denied by all respondents to the case.

Ms Flessa is accused of failing to punish anti-Semitic behaviour, including allegations she did not respond to students calling out “Heil Hitler”, nor to those who did Nazi salutes in her classroom. She denied these claims.

She also allegedly refused to let Matt Kaplan conduct a world leaders project in 2018 on Israel’s former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who she said was not named on the list of leaders the students were told they could study.

Mr Kaplan’s parents complained to the school after hearing about this, suggesting Ms Flessa was anti-Semitic and was teaching political bias.

The complaint was investigated internally by the school in 2018 and then again during a 2020 Worklogic investigation, which was commissioned by Victoria’s education department into anti-Semitic claims at the school.

Ms Flessa told the court she did not to allow Mr Kaplan to complete his project on Mr Netanyahu because he initially said he wanted to study Hitler while being “aggressive, hostile” and disrupting the class.

“He was on his feet, and he repeatedly said he wanted to do Hitler,” she said, “I was really shocked, perplexed, I was thinking ‘what?’

“Then he turned around and said Netanyahu … I said ‘no you can’t do that, you need to stick to the list’ because he was being hostile and inflammatory.”

The students’ lawyer Adam Butt accused Ms Flessa of fabricating this story and said Mr Kaplan never said Hitler’s name in class, which she denied.

Mr Minack asked her what happened during the class, after the parents’ 2018 complaint, and she told him Mr Kaplan and another Jewish student yelled out they wanted to choose Hitler.

However, when Mr Minack again asked her about this for the 2020 inquiry she said it was only Mr Kaplan who yelled out Hitler.

“I remember Matt calling out, some people joined in,” Ms Flessa said.

“So the evidence you gave Mr Minack was incorrect?” Mr Butt said.

A long time had passed since 2018, she said, and she may have “left it out by accident”.

Mr Butt accused the teacher of fabricating her story about Mr Kaplan’s hostile and aggressive behaviour, which she denied.

Ms Flessa admitted she never disciplined Mr Kaplan for this behaviour, nor did she note it on his report or tell his parents about it.

Even after Mr Kaplan’s parents complained, Ms Flessa did not let Mr Kaplan study Mr Netanyahu.

She said Mr Kaplan apologised to her and completed his project on conservationist Dian Fossey. Mr Butt said she also lied about the apology, which she denied.

The trial continues before Justice Debra Mortimer.

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