Facts needed in Safe Schools debate

As debate rages about the Safe Schools program and the nature of information provided to Australian students, there's one perspective – arguably the most important – that has largely been ignored. What about the young people themselves?

 Amid the claims, counter-claims and opinions, it's time for the discussion to be grounded in facts.

As Director of the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS), at La Trobe University, it's clear to me that a number of important points are being ignored in the debate.

Firstly, diversity in our schools, classrooms and homes in Australia is an incontestable reality.

In 2008, the Fourth National Survey of Australian Secondary Students Sexual Health found that between nine and ten per cent of young people reported that they were attracted to people of the same or both sexes.  Research from New Zealand, Youth '12 (2012) found that approximately four out of every 100 students were either transgender (1.2 per cent) or not sure of their gender (2.5 per cent).

Secondly, accepting diversity in schools makes a big difference to the mental health of young people.

Researchers at ARCSHS have been investigating the health and wellbeing of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians for over twenty years. Along with other research groups we have consistently shown that of mental LGBTI young people have higher rates of mental health problems and this is related to homophobic and transphobic abuse and experiences of discrimination.

'Writing Themselves In 3', a national study conducted in 2010, found that 75 per cent of same sex attracted young people experienced homophobic abuse; and most of the abuse took place at school (80 per cent). In 2014 the 'From Blues to Rainbows' study funded by beyondblue also showed high rates of discrimination and abuse at school for students who identified as transgender and gender diverse.

At the same time, many traditional supports for students who have been bullied may not be helpful to those who have experienced homophobic or transphobic abuse. Families are often important sources of support for young people experiencing difficulties but for many LGBTI young people families may not be supportive, leaving students with nowhere to turn for information or advice except their teachers and mentors at school.

Until recently few schools challenged entrenched cultures of homophobia and transphobia, or did not have the resources or expertise to respond appropriately to provide support. This is where programs like Safe Schools can make a difference. 

Thirdly, acknowledging diversity in schools creates room for the important discussion about choice.

Discussions about sexuality and gender can help to demystify feelings of difference and shame. A school that acknowledges diversity is more supportive for students to make a range of choices at the right time for them, and to be safe to do so. Of course heterosexuality is an accepted choice within schools and the broader community. Programs such as Safe Schools recognise the need for support for students who are already dealing with questions about sexuality and gender, and for those who want to help them.  

The model for Safe Schools Coalition Victoria was adopted by the Victorian Department of Education in 2010 and was carefully crafted to be supportive and informative without judgement or pressure. It was based on a range of research evidence from La Trobe University and other experts in the field, and developed in collaboration with researchers, education experts, and the Department of Education to provide a whole school approach to proactively recognise the reality of sexual diversity for young people.

Now, nationally through Safe Schools Coalition Australia, educators and the broader community are responding to the opportunity to support students in need. The program receives daily requests to work with school communities to promote a safe and environment for LGBTI students. Staff visit schools to provide tailored professional development and training sessions for teachers in response to requests. Schools are able to determine the specific ways in which they use available resources and provide support to young people. Program staff also help schools work with parents and families. If requested, the program has the expertise to help transgender and gender diverse young people, and their families, to affirm their identities at school.

Fourthly, attacking programs that recognise the facts about diversity can harm young people.

The need for Safe Schools is clearly demonstrated. The numerous expressions of support indicate it is having a positive impact on schools, students and parents. Ironically, the degree of misinformation and hostility surrounding the program demonstrates the need for its continued existence.

Of utmost importance is the negative impact the vitriolic debate is having on young people. There are already reports in recent weeks from mental health services that requests for help from LGBTI young people have increased.

The evidence demonstrating the need for Safe Schools is sound. This week it has been supported by a letter from 363 academics from more than 27 different institutions across the country, including our own Vice Chancellor at La Trobe University, Professor John Dewar.

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.

This Opinion piece first appeared in The Age

Media; Catherine Garrett 9479 6565 / 0418 964 325