Safe No More: the neutering of the Safe Schools Programme

Yesterday the Prime Minister caved to pressure from his backbench and gave the go-ahead to make changes to a programme called Safe Schools.

What is it?

Safe Schools is an anti-bullying programme in place in over 500 schools around Australia. Its aims, according to Chris Bush who helped author the programme, are:

  1. Increase respect and inclusion of LGBTI people by challenging stereotypes and increasing empathy through exploring relatable real life stories;
  2. Reduce homophobic and transphobic behaviour and discrimination in schools and the wider community by increasing understanding of the impact of the behaviour and discrimination on people’s health and wellbeing; and
  3. Provide practical strategies and skills to enable students to create a school environment that recognises and celebrates the diversity of each person’s unique sexuality, gender identity, or intersex status.

The whole idea, in addition to actually reducing bullying, is to get kids to understand LGBTI people; when you understand someone, it’s awfully easy to empathise with them, and awfully difficult to bully them. It doesn’t teach kids to be gay or any of that rot.

The programme was launched nationally in 2014, and it’s only now that there are apparently problems with it.

What happened?

Back in mid-February there was a kerfuffle around the Victorian Same Sex Gender Diverse Formal. This is an annual event thrown every year by an organisation called Minus18 for LGBTI kids. From their website:

WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT

Imagine being told by your school that the clothes you feel comfortable wearing to a formal aren’t considered ‘normal’ or don’t conform to a dress code. Imagine not being allowed to take a partner of the same sex, or being too afraid to attend altogether.

This particular formal was for kids in Victoria – same-sex attracted, transgender, and so on – who were unwelcome or unsafe at their school formals. The event is crowdfunded – the tickets are $40 apiece, but the idea was that, by appealing to the public, Minus18 would be able to provide tickets to kids who couldn’t afford the fee.

Now, a little group called “Stop Safe Schools Coalition” got wind of this event, and decided that they didn’t want it to go ahead. Operating under the impression that if a ticket was bought that was a place taken, they encouraged their followers via social media to buy up the tickets – the objective being to prevent any kids from being able to attend. Problem; every ticket bought is guaranteed to go to an LGBTI kid who wants to attend. Minus18 aimed to raise about $15k, but managed to raise over $29k as of 16 February. The tickets are now free – and Minus18 even declared that they would refund the tickets of those attendees who already had paid for them.

It was, honestly, pretty funny to watch how spectacularly the whole thing backfired.

That was apparently the cue for the nasty right wing of the Liberal Party to start raising a stink in Parliament; led by Cory Bernardi, backed by George Christensen and Eric Abetz, the Liberal backbench pressured the Prime Minister into announcing a review of the programme. I do not have evidence of a causative link, but the timing was convenient – and note the name of the group that thinks same-sex attracted and gender diverse kids shouldn’t be allowed to have a good time. Of course, this review wasn’t enough for Christensen, who circulated a petition calling for the programme to be suspended or axed.

Meanwhile, Premier Daniel Andrews of Victoria, the State where the programme originated, declared that his government would see Safe Schools funding safeguarded no matter what happened at the federal level. Andrew Barr, Chief Minister of the ACT, declared that the programme had his full support.

Amusingly, despite the controversy, controversy confected entirely by backbenchers who “don’t want to see sexual liberation of young people”, the number of schools participating in the (entirely voluntary) programme went from 495 when the review was announced, to 526 by Friday 11 March. Exactly one school pulled out during that time – which brings the grand total of schools that have withdrawn until now to two.

And now the review has come back.

Where are we now?

A number of experts have already aired their views on the Conversation (link below in Sources); none of them come close to remotely agreeing with the assertions of the programme’s detractors.

Nevertheless, the government has decided to make changes:

Parental involvement:

  1. Students will need parental consent to participate;
  2. Parents will also get a say if schools can take part; and
  3. Gay and lesbian students who don’t get their parents’ consent can access school counselling.

Website content:

  1. Safe Schools website will be stripped of some content;
  2. Content moved to a broader anti-bullying website within Department of Education; and
  3. All third-party organisation branding removed from all official resources.

Programme design:

  1. Programme materials restricted to secondary schools;
  2. Lesson plans amended to remove activities regarded “unsuitable” such as gender diversity-role playing activities;
  3. All of Us resource redesigned to ensure it’s backed by curriculum on biology appropriate for the target age group;
  4. Resources peer reviewed and approved by a panel of qualified educators from the department; and
  5. Restricting the use and distribution of the OMG I’m Queer, OMG My Friend’s Queer, and Stand Out

People:

  1. Managers won’t be able to bring program into disrepute, or engage in political advocacy.

Meanwhile, in Victoria, the State Government says “no”:

Tweet from James Merlino, Deputy Premier of Victoria. Tweet reads "No changes to Vic safe schools program in wake of Turnbull Govt recommendations - total cave-in to bigots. We know #safeschools saves lives."

Opinion

The website content changes are silly – kids know how to use Google. It’s abundantly clear those changes are just an ineffectual effort to exercise control, and in the case of the removal of the links to Minus18, a bid to try to curtail the kids’ access to that organisation and the events it hosts.

The programme changes, primarily point 1 under that heading, are stupid; gay people don’t just suddenly materialise fully-formed in high school. Neither do trans folk. We ought to be introduced to these subjects at the same time as our heterosexual peers are being introduced to matters pertaining to their sexuality, and given that we still experience bullying at a higher rate than they do – with a correspondingly higher self-harm/suicide rate – this is a problem that needs to be nipped in the bud.

But the most moronic changes are parental involvement. Starting in the middle, with point 2; parents don’t get to decide if trigonometry will be taught at a public school, nor do they get a say on the presence of Shakespeare in the curriculum (and when you understand what they’re talking about in those plays, it’s far more adult than any sexuality course). Religious education can be opted out of, but the parents don’t get to say it can’t be taught at all (and, again, have you actually read the Bible? That thing is filthy). To say that they can veto their kids learning about LGBTI subjects, while still requiring all kids get heterosexual-oriented sex education, is just pandering to bigotry. This measure practically guarantees that the programme will be excluded from large numbers of schools – schools with LGBTI students that are most desperately in need of it.

Equally awful is the requirement of parental consent for student participation, and the change that gay/lesbian kids who don’t get said consent can go to the counsellor. The first requirement essentially means that LGBTI kids who want to participate but whose parents object will have to out themselves; exactly the worst possible thing that can be done under those circumstances. It also means that any kids who are bullying others will likely be excluded – I find it exceedingly unlikely that the parents of a homophobic bully will allow their precious little dear to be told that homophobic bullying is a bad thing; these attitudes tend to develop at home after all. The second provision – which looks like it’s a means to allow those kids to access some form of support service – still requires them to out themselves, and comes with the inadvertent bonus that heterosexual trans kids, and bisexuals, are locked out. Don’t forget that in many cases there isn’t a counsellor – but a chaplain funded by the Federal Government.

The changes are nothing more than an attack on LGBTI kids at the hands of a bunch of nasty conservative politicians – an attack the Prime Minister cheerfully allows to go ahead a fortnight after snapping selfies at Mardi Gras. And the genesis for the whole rigmarole was a bunch of bigots unable to stand the idea that a bunch of LGBTI kids might be able to have a fun evening.

Consider what Chief Minister Barr had to say on the subject back in February:

Statement by the Andrew Barr: I knew I was gay when I was 14 but didn't feel safe to come out until about ten years later, after I left uni. When I was studying in the 1980s and 90s, schools and universities were pretty tough environments for kids who were different. It’s heartbreaking that, in 2016, school is still an unhappy place for so many LGBTI teenagers. Bullying distracts students from learning and saps them of their potential. Labor rolled out Safe Schools to do something about the bullying and discrimination faced by so many young LGBTI Australians. 80% of Australian LGBTI students face verbal abuse and bullying at school. Not only that, but same-sex attracted and gender diverse young Australians are six times more likely to die from suicide, with bullying and exclusion major factors in suicide attempts. That is why the Safe Schools program is so important. It is professionally run by the Foundation for Young Australians. Participation is voluntary and principals have flexibility to choose materials that will work best to address bullying in their school. About a quarter of the ACT's Public schools and one independent school are members of the Safe Schools Coalition and the response to the program in Canberra has been overwhelmingly positive. The training, resources and advice provided to schools, staff and students have been of high quality and are highly valued by staff, students and families. The program has the full support of my government.

He’s right. 75% of LGBTI young people have experienced verbal or physical homophobic bullying – with 80% of them saying it happened at school. The result; these children are six times more likely to attempt suicide and self-harm than their peers.

There were two out gay dudes in my year at high school, and one out lesbian. No out trans people. And these people were lucky; they just ended up on the happy pills and missing months of school or dropping out due to depression from all the bullying. None of the physical attacks they endured resulted in hospitalisation.

The rest of us, wisely, kept quiet until university, when the nice therapists helped put (most of) us back together; even then we all have stories of times when a bridge or a carving knife looked real friendly. I can’t speak for the others but there are still occasional moments when the memories come back. A programme like this, aimed at making sure that stuff never happened, would have been fantastic for all of us. We’d have been reassured that these feelings we had towards members of our own sex were normal. We would have had information on how to broach the subject with relatives. It would have sent a clear signal from the school that anti-gay bullying was not OK.

It might have let us actually come to terms with what we are without having to go through months of therapy. Some of us might still have functional relationships with our parents.

What’s been done is worse than if the programme had been axed altogether; if it had been axed, the States and Territories could have stepped into the breach, and continued to support its delivery. Instead it’s been hamstrung, rendered ineffectual.

It doesn’t quite condemn the kids of today to the same vale of tears that Chief Minister Barr, my peers, and myself experienced; but it comes close.

And those who say Malcolm Turnbull is just Tony Abbott in a more expensive suit have yet another piece of evidence to support their argument. If they’re wrong, then he’s just weak. Either way; he loses. But not as badly as the legion of LGBTI kids who will be hurting as a result of this, so at least he’s ahead of someone. I hope it was worth it.


Sources:

Anderson, Stephanie, Safe Schools: Malcolm Turnbull requests investigation into program helping LGBTI students, ABC News (23 February 2016, accessed 18 March 2016)

______, Safe Schools: Malcolm Turnbull warns Bill Shorten, other MPs to choose words carefully in heated debate, ABC News (17 March 2016, accessed 18 March 2016)

Barr, Andrew, Facebook post on the Safe Schools Programme (23 February 2016, accessed 18 March 2016)

Bush, Chris, I wrote the Safe Schools LGBTI program, Tony Abbott. It’s vital and it changes lives, The Guardian (1 March 2016, accessed 18 March 2016)

Conifer, Dan, Safe Schools: George Christensen welcomes ‘gutting’ of ‘bad content’ in anti-bullying program, ABC News (18 March 2016; accessed 18 March 2016)

Hillier, Lynne, et al., Writing Themselves In 3: the third national study on the sexual health and wellbeing of same sex attracted and gender questioning young people. (2010)

Lawson, Kirsten, Chief Minister Andrew Barr tells school children it’s OK to be gay, OK to be trans, Canberra Times (9 March 2016, accessed 18 March 2016)

Medhora, Shalailah, Safe Schools program: 32 more schools sign up and only one leaves after furore, The Guardian (11 March 2016, accessed 18 March 2016)

Stark, Jill, Safe Schools program: why zealots are trying to drag us back to the dark ages, the Age (24 February 2016, accessed 18 March 2016)

Taylor, Lenore, Turnbull government unveils dramatic changes to Safe Schools program (18 March 2016, accessed 18 March 2016)

Workman, Alice, Protest against same-sex school formal backfires, Triple J Hack (16 February 2016, accessed 18 March 2016)

ABC News, Victorian Premier guarantees future of Safe Schools program as Federal MPs call for scheme to be axed (16 March 2016, accessed 18 March 2016)

The Conversation, Safe Schools review findings: experts respond (18 March 2016, accessed 18 March 2016)

Department of Education (Commonwealth), Safe Schools Coalition Australia launched [press release], (13 June 2014, accessed 18 March 2016)

Minus18, Melbourne Same Sex Gender Diverse Formal Details (n.d., accessed 18 March 2016)

SBS News, Safe Schools program downsized after campaign by right-wing MPs and Christian lobby groups (18 March 2016, accessed 18 March 2016)

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