Yes, we need Safe Schools

Yes, we need Safe Schools

Despite a recent review generally supporting the Safe Schools initiative, some continue to question its validity, often in the kind of language which demonstrates why the program is necessary. So what’s the deal with the Safe Schools debate?

Why is a Safe Schools program necessary?

When viewed through the filter of the alarmingly high rates of anxiety, depression, panic disorders, self-harm and suicide risk in LGBTQIA kids, the need for an anti-bullying program of this nature is clear.

The Safe Schools anti-bullying program was designed specifically to educate teenagers and educators about intersex and gender diversity and same sex attraction. It aims to reduce homophobia and transphobia, and to create a safe environment for students who identify as LGBTQIA. The program team works with the Department of Education to provide advice and policy guidance, as well as with schools directly to provide training, resources and consultancy advice.

Stories from the source

A lot has been said by politicians and commentators who don’t think there’s a need for the program. But what do the people who it’s aimed at think?

The Safe Schools Story Project encourages current and former students to talk about what the program means to them. The stories often reveal lives of pain, distress, confusion and shame – feelings that sometimes continue to the present.

Laura (24) remembered a sex education class that talked only about safe heterosexual sex.

I remember sitting in sex ed. class when I was 14, and putting a condom on a banana with my classmates, confused as to how people have sex if they both have vaginas. I had to really scour the internet before finding legitimate information. It was disheartening that my sexuality didn’t seem worth mentioning in class or apparently even online in an educational capacity. Having Safe Schools would have been so beneficial for my self-confidence.

Dillon (23) said that bullying was talked about in his school, unless it related to sexuality.

In which case there was no support and they didn’t want to know about it.  It was this lack of education that caused the bullying… Nothing told me it was okay to be who I was. School is supposed to be a place of learning, but not about certain things – I was told it was ‘not the time and place’ for my queerness by both teachers and the principal.

An anonymous contributor discussed her mixed feelings on learning more about her sexual identity in her adulthood, and her belief that the Safe Schools program could change things .

Because of the attitudes in society there is now so much self-hate for me to unlearn, and the safe schools program can potentially change that attitude. I hope that kids in the future don’t grow up in a toxic atmosphere that causes them to hate themselves.

Loopholes legitimise harmful discrimination

Hannah Robert, a  La Trobe Law School academic, has conducted research into the experiences of people who struggled in environments of misunderstanding, prejudice and bullying at school, based on their gender or sexual identities.

Although the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) includes human rights to non-discrimination and equality, Hannah Robert noted recently that religious schools are entitled to discriminate against LGBTQIA students under section 83 of Australia’s Equal Opportunity Act.

This legal loophole still allows faith-based organisations to discriminate on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status or gender identity where the discrimination conforms with the religion’s doctrines and beliefs and ‘is reasonably necessary to avoid injury to the religious sensitivities of adherents of the religion’.

This loophole, and similar ones in other states and territories, make such discrimination acceptable. This leaves students vulnerable to discrimination from both teachers and peers in a way that standard anti-bullying programs cannot address.

It also leaves an important information vacuum. When young people are given no information, or only negative information, about their inner experiences, they will try to understand them through the tools at hand. For too many, the tools have included bullying, denial, self-hatred, intolerance , and uncurated online resources that may be inappropriate at best and, at worst, actively harmful.

Everyone benefits from the safe school program

Director of the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS) Professor Jayne Lucke, recently responded to the controversy about the program. She presented four irrefutable facts. First, that diversity – including in sexuality and gender – in Australia ‘is an incontestable reality.’ Secondly, that accepting that diversity makes a big difference to the mental health of young LGBTI Australians. Thirdly, Lucke stated, ‘acknowledging diversity in schools creates room for the important discussion about choice,’ Fourthly and most importantly, Dr Lucke pointed out that these debates have already caused a spike in demand for mental health help for young people. Dr Lucke said:

Safe Schools is an important part of broader efforts to create more inclusive, supportive and safe education spaces for our young people. School should be a place where all students can thrive and meet their full potential, regardless of their background, beliefs… or sexuality. Sadly, that basic human right has been overshadowed. Let’s get back to the facts.

One key way the Safe Schools project creates that environment is to educate all students and teachers that “normal” encompasses much more variety than people once believed it did.

By tackling homophobia and transphobia through education, schools can make their spaces more inclusive and supportive. The program aims for all kids to grow up safe, confident, compassionate, accepted and accepting.

Image: Teach Acceptance by marybettiniblank (CC 0.1.0)