NSW schools have travelled a long and rocky road in addressing issues of bullying and harassment caused by the (perceived) sexual orientation and gender identity of students and the ending of the Safe Schools program has increased the difficulty of this task.
On the one hand, NSW schools are expected to respect and value diversity and be free from all forms of discrimination, including those based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.
On the other hand, schools that dare to talk or educate their students about such issues are subject to public demonisation by right-wing media. The manner in which these schools are identified and attacked could in itself be considered a form of harassment.
The issue is simple: there exist in our world people of a diverse nature. Everyone is different in one way or another but some groups have been treated worse than others.
While we have laws to protect people against discrimination and ensure them access to housing, education and health this access is not enjoyed equally due to exemptions that exist under the law. People who belong to groups that are treated poorly can suffer decreased health, wellbeing and lower educational results.
In particular, people who are gender-diverse or same-sex-attracted can be excluded from their friends and/or family upon coming out. They can be abused by other students and be made to feel unwelcome by teachers or the school.
Schools are expected to strive to create inclusive and supportive environments for all students but while the Department maintains this to be the case it fails to provide adequate support for schools (and therefore their principals and teachers). Educators are finding it increasingly difficult to create an inclusive environment in schools.
The NSW Education Minister announced recently that there would be no funding from the state to continue the Safe Schools program beyond its 2017 deadline. While this is nothing new, the Department has also failed to provide any resources that could support teachers in the classroom.
The sexuality component of the Crossroads program was withdrawn pending a review last year as was the Teaching Sexual Health in Schools resources, and teachers are still waiting for the support they have been requesting for years.
Despite the Coroner making mention of homophobic bullying in cases of teenage suicide, and research suggesting a dire need to address LGBTIQ-based bullying and harassment due to the significant detrimental impact of such behaviour on the academic success and wellbeing of young people (and teachers), NSW still has no systemic support for schools in this regard. We have policy and guidelines on sun safety, nutrition and road safety yet nothing explicit on supporting LGBTIQ students in schools.
While incorporating LGBTIQ perspectives into a broader anti-bullying program does provide some structural support for teachers on this issue we need to make sure LGBTIQ perspectives are not watered down and that explicit support can be provided.
It is imperative that teacher perspective is incorporated on the panel of experts that oversees the anti-bullying program. There is little use in having an expert panel that considers literature on bullying but fails to understand the demands and complexity of being responsible for a classroom of students.
Federation is seeking to ensure that whatever program replaces Safe Schools in NSW will be inclusive of LGBTIQ students and support teachers in their obligations to provide an inclusive environment that values diversity and respects differences.
Mel Smith is Officer attached to the LGBTIQ Special Interests Group