Joanne Curtis was a Year 11 student at Cromer High on Sydney’s northern beaches when she first met Chris Dawson.
Joanne Curtis was a Year 11 student at Cromer High on Sydney’s northern beaches when she first met Chris Dawson.

Inside the NSW school at centre of murder case

CROMER High School, on Sydney's northern beaches, was a cesspit of secrets, lies and cover-ups of sexual misconduct and abuse in the 1980s, according to several past students.

It's the same school where physical education teacher Chris Dawson first met student Joanne Curtis, 16, in 1982 and moved her into his family home two days after his wife Lyn vanished that same year. Ms Dawson's disappearance is the subject of The Australian's award-wining podcast series The Teacher's Pet which yesterday led to the arrest of her husband in Queensland who was then extradited to New South Wales and today charged with her murder.

The podcast also prompted the NSW Child Abuse and Sex Crimes Squad to form Strike Force Southwood and investigate allegations of abuse at Cromer High after ex-students spoke on the series about the school's toxic culture. Many past pupils alleged that teachers and students at the school were commonly involved in sexual relationships in the 1980s.

One of the most shocking allegations include that of a male teacher - not Mr Dawson - having raped a female student in 1980. Other former students have described how teachers openly boasted about sleeping with female students and supplied them with drugs and alcohol before making sexual advances, The Daily Telegraph reports.

Robyn Wheeler, who was vice-captain at Cromer High School in the 1980s, previously claimed that at least six teachers were having sex with six teenage students during her time there. She has reportedly provided the names of 10 teachers involved to police after she had met with alleged victims to gather information.

Ms Wheeler told The Australiannewspaper that one of the teachers even climbed through a student's window at night.

"The culture at the school was such that there were groups of men, male teachers, in their 20s and 30s who preyed on young girls at the school - 16, 17-year-old girls," Ms Wheeler told the newspaper.

"You would see them talking all the time, when there were sporting trips or school trips for whatever reason, they would be in the teachers' car, they would be babysitting for the teachers."

She said teachers at the school took advantage of the teens and that one relationship in particular was "common knowledge". She said there were teachers still working now who were involved back in the 1980s.

 

Chris and Lyn Dawson. Picture: Troy Bendeich.
Chris and Lyn Dawson. Picture: Troy Bendeich.

Helen Prideaux also came forward earlier this year about the widening scandal of teachers pursuing students for sex at the school in the 1970s and 80s.

She said a night with school friends at the local Time and Tide Hotel - a common meeting place for students despite them being underage - turned sinister.

A teacher - not Mr Dawson - who offered her a lift stopped the car blocks from her home and groped at her. She felt "sick and ashamed" as she fled and hid in bushes, The Australian previously reported.

Later, a school friend visited her with "tears rolling down her face … there was no lucky escape for her".

Joanne Curtis was a schoolgirl when she moved in with Chris Dawson just days after his wife went missing.
Joanne Curtis was a schoolgirl when she moved in with Chris Dawson just days after his wife went missing.

Joanne Curtis was a Year 11 student at Sydney's Cromer High School when she first met Dawson who was working there as a sports teacher. He had noticed her in Year 10 and fixed the roll to ensure she would be in his class.

Soon after becoming her teacher, Mr Dawson invited Ms Curtis to be a babysitter for his two young daughters. The teenager - who came from a broken home with an abusive stepfather - accepted the offer.

Towards the end of the year, Mr Dawson and Ms Curtis had sex for the first time at his parents' house in Maroubra.

A coronial inquest was later told the couple started a sexual relationship when Ms Curtis was 16 and Mr Dawson was 32.

In 2003, Ms Curtis told the coroner that Mr Dawson invited her to move into his family home while she was studying for her HSC, in October 1981.

"I had nowhere else to go," she said.

During the inquest, police advocate assisting the coroner Matt Fordham told the court that on several occasions from 1980 onwards, Mr Dawson placed love letters in Ms Curtis' schoolbag, and "invited her to marry him".

Joanne Curtis walking to her local beach the day after it was revealed that the search for Lynette Dawson’s body was over, in September 2018. Picture: Matrix.
Joanne Curtis walking to her local beach the day after it was revealed that the search for Lynette Dawson’s body was over, in September 2018. Picture: Matrix.

Phil Webster attended the school while Mr Dawson was a teacher and said the culture was so bad that the long-running affair between Dawson and his Year 11 student Ms Curtis was seen as "no big deal", the Daily Telegraph reports.

"It wasn't just about the relationship between Chris and Joanne, it was about some of the other teachers' behaviour … there were several others," Mr Webster said.

"The reason why not a lot was said about it at the time is that it was an accepted practice. It was seen as OK because once the girl turned 16 she was old enough to make a decision about who they wanted to be with and if that happened to be a teacher that's no big deal.

"That's what we were basically coached to believe and all these years later many of us have become parents look back on it and think, wow how did they con us into thinking that was OK."

 

megan.palin@news.com.au | @Megan_Palin

Joanne Curtis, former second wife of Chris Dawson, arrives for inquest into the disappearance of Lyn Dawson at the Westmead Coroners Court in Sydney, 2003. Picture: Glenn Campbell
Joanne Curtis, former second wife of Chris Dawson, arrives for inquest into the disappearance of Lyn Dawson at the Westmead Coroners Court in Sydney, 2003. Picture: Glenn Campbell

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