Lesson of the Safe Schools Program debate: If only politicians listened to schools

IEU members will remember the media frenzy and political circus that occurred in March when conservative members of the federal government called for funding of the antibullying Safe Schools Program to be ceased because it was “turning kids gay”. The level of hype even forced Malcolm Turnbull to urge his own politicians to use “measured language’’ when discussing the issues.

The government’s answer was to commission a quick review of the program conducted by Professor Bill Louden. The program, which is run by the Safe Schools Coalition Australia (SSCA), is aimed at raising awareness of lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or intersex (LGBTI) school students and includes a strong antibullying focus. Many government and independent schools are members of the SSCA. To date only two Catholic schools in Australia are formally members.

The result of the review is that the program will continue to be funded with some amendment, primarily that the program runs in secondary schools. Congratulations to the Victorian Minister for Education, James Merlino who did listen to schools, parents and students. He declared that the program would run in Victoria unchanged. He is confident about how the program is being implemented in Victoria, where it will become mandatory in government schools by 2019.

IE spoke to three Victorian non government school principals about their membership of the Safe Schools Coalition.

Jim Laussen is Principal of Overnewton Anglican Community College, a K-12 coeducational school with over 2000 students. Ivan Mahoney runs St Joseph’s Flexible Learning Centre, a small Edmund Rice secondary college offering an alternative environment for students who have for a variety of reasons, been unable to connect or have been rejected by mainstream schooling. Paul Tobias is Principal of St Joseph’s, a large Catholic boys’ school of over 1700 students in Geelong.

Safety and respect

For Laussen, the motivation to join the SSC was the acknowledgment a couple of years ago that Overnewton was not as safe for same-sex-attracted, intersex and gender diverse students as they wanted it to be. Some students were avoiding school; others weren’t able to participate fully.

The school’s counselling staff have used the resources to provide professional learning for teachers and teachers have used the resources to provide support for them in providing appropriate discussions in pastoral care sessions. The resources have been used mainly with senior students.

“The Safe Schools Coalition has helped us teach our students how to better navigate the differences that they see each day. For instance, we have always encouraged our children not to use gender based or racist putdowns; now we are asking them to add slurs about sexuality and gender diversity to the list,” Laussen said.

Mahony sees his school’s membership as an expression of their aim to be an inclusive educational community, embracing all young people, staff and parents irrespective of race, religion, gender, ability or sexuality. He reports that they have mainly used the program in staff development activities to increase sensitivity and awareness of working with all their students. The program provides some excellent antibullying curriculum resources. Ivan explains that they seek to work with students within their Four Principles: Participation, Safe and Legal, Honesty and most importantly Respect. He says that the Safe Schools is ultimately about safety and respect.

“We have 372 students, over 100 of us are Muslim asylum seekers, over 100 of us have involvement with Human Services and Juvenile Justice, over 30 of us live in out-of-home care. Our involvement with Safe Schools is just another way we make our Catholicism, our universality, real.”

Tobias believes that the vision of Safe Schools – that all Australian schools are safe, supportive and respectful teaching and learning communities that promote student wellbeing is congruent with his school’s vision.

“In the case of our college, we have tried to develop a school culture which is respectful and tolerant of diversity and inclusion. This has assisted us in attempting to produce well balanced, emotionally intelligent young men who are capable of intimate, healthy heterosexual relationships. At the same time, we can support LGBTI students who can suffer serious mental health issues, if they lack that support.”

Our involvement with Safe Schools is just another way we make our Catholicism, our universality, real.

Parental support

All three principals have had full parental support of their membership of the program, and have been concerned that the recent outcry from some quarters has been both misinformed and unhelpful given their schools’ focus on understanding and respecting diversity and optimising mental health in their student communities.

Laussen said: “There’s a lot of misinformation about what the Safe Schools Program involves. We have never been told what to do or how to do it. We have never been pressured to promote homosexuality as a preferred lifestyle, to encourage students to come out, to teach children about homosexual acts, to teach children how to bind their chests. Given that we are a Christian school, I have made several offers to key people to come to my school and meet with my staff and students to gain an understanding of how a Christian school can be a member of the SSC and use their materials. Disappointingly, no one has taken up that offer.”

Mahony also highlights the parental support.“I have had a number of parents come and thank me personally about the impact our membership has had on their young people. Young people and parents have also expressed their concerns about the recent national review and its impact. Much of the debate has totally ignored the impact that has been felt by young people who are dealing with these issues on a day to day basis.”

Challenging the misinformed and intolerant

Mahony believes that much of the opposition to the program stems from a conservative agenda, based on homophobia and discrimination.

When the controversy about SSC became public, Tobias wrote to both the state and federal governments highlighting support and also making the point that “sometimes, as a consequence of trying to understand everyone on the LGBTI spectrum and provide specific information about each, the Coalition provides critics with the perception that the original purpose of Safe Schools is being hijacked”.

“The ongoing problem for any Catholic educator working in this area is the suggestion that they are promoting a lifestyle which is inconsistent with the teachings of the Church. My own view is that same sex attracted young people are a part of Catholic schools, and that they can become marginalised unless we educate our communities about the importance of the values of the Gospel, like inclusivity, tolerance and respect for the uniqueness of every individual.”

At the end of the day, these three schools use the Safe Schools Coalition materials, tailored to their own programs, and within their unique educational contexts, students’ needs, and ethos. They strive to create inclusive, safe environments for their students.

Laussen has the last word. “We are a faith based school; our students can attend our school knowing that, regardless of their gender, faith, ability, ethnicity or sexual orientation and identity, they are loved and safe and that we have mechanisms in place to support each of these aspects of diversity.”

Prepared by Cathy Hickey and Loretta Cotter of IEU VicTas.