Shore up Safe Schools

Mel Smith

Explicit protection must be provided in any new anti-bullying convention for LGBTIQ students

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The sexuality component of the Crossroads program was withdrawn pending a review last year as was the Teaching Sexual Health in Schools resources, and teachers are still waiting for the support they have been requesting for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

Protecting Australian students against LGBTIQ-based bullying

2008: Melbourne Declaration of Education Goals for Young Australians signed by all Australian governments in 2008 commits parties to an education system free from discrimination, including sexual orientation discrimination

2010: La Trobe University's Writing Themselves In 3 report's recommendations stated that schools should have a specific policy on homophobic bullying that offers well-publicised protection to Same-Sex-Attracted and Gender-Questioning (SSAGQ) students. Consequently, Safe Schools Victoria was established as a voluntary program in that state and the National Safe Schools Framework was endorsed by all ministers for education in December 2010.

2011: NSW announced Proud Schools, a pilot program aimed at tackling homophobia.

2014: The evaluation of the Proud Schools pilot reported that integrated, whole-of-school strategies that focused on long-term change were the most successful, but that there had been no real noticeable change in school culture. I indicated that many teachers do not know how to deal with LGBTIQ-based bullying and harassment and are scared that if they confront it there might be backlash from parents and the community.

Safe Schools Coalition Australia formally launched in June 2014 by the Liberal government led by Tony Abbott. The NSW component was launched in July.

2015: The All Of Us teaching resource was launched with classroom lessons supported by video resources following federal approval.

2016: Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a review of the program following attacks by right-wing politicians and media. The Louden Review reported the program was meeting its aims and suggested some minor modifications. Education Minister Simon Birmingham announced a series of changes, restricting the use of some material, cutting out external links, insisting on greater parental involvement and moving the program to a government website.

Federal funding for Safe Schools is not expected to continue beyond July 2017. The Victorian and ACT governments pledged to continue the program. In NSW, the Department released and then withdrew the Teacher Toolbox for delivering content relating to diversity of sex, sexuality and gender, pending a review (due in July/August).

2017: NSW indicated it would not be taking on Safe Schools funding when federal funding ceases. The WA Labor government made an election promise to fund Safe Schools at a state level.