There are probably other things I should be writing about right now, but I can’t stop thinking about Safe Schools, and the current business with the Government having an enquiry into it, and deciding to weaken it, and possibly even de-fund it.
This feels very personal to me, because Safe Schools is, first and foremost, an anti-bullying program, and I was bullied constantly at one of my high schools, and to a lesser degree in my first primary school. The bullying I dealt with was not physical, though in retrospect, a lot of the most unpleasant parts from high school are things I would now recognise as sexual harrassment. (I didn’t have the vocabulary at the time to know what to call it, though I hated it quite intensely.) But the schools I went to also had no idea how to deal with bullying, which made it worse.
It wasn’t that the teachers were unsympathetic (though the phrase ‘character building’ got thrown around more often than it should have been), but all that happened if you told them about it was that they would talk to the bullies, who would then know we had dobbed on them. Needless to say, this didn’t help. But I was lucky – one day our House teacher, Mr Doyle, declared that he preferred to spend his lunchbreaks in the classroom, which meant that my friends and I could, too, and suddenly we had somewhere we were safe. (At the time I was too relieved to consider his motivations; in retrospect, I think that Mr Doyle was a very kind man who gave up his right to take lunch with his colleagues in order to give a handful of teenagers some respite.) This helped enormously, but it didn’t really address the underlying issues. Years later, discussing our time at that school, my friends and I began to realise that, while we were at the bottom of the heap, just about everyone in our year was being bullied by someone – it was a completely dog eat dog culture, and nobody knew how to fix it.
Safe Schools is designed to give both students and teachers tools to deal with bullying, and in fact attempts, from the earliest stages of primary school, to address the issues that lead to bullying. This is, in my view, immeasurably important. I did OK, eventually, but other people have been far less lucky. According to Kidspot, children who are bullied are three times more likely to be depressed, and nine times more likely to consider suicide than those who are not. This is an enormous problem.
So what, exactly, is the problem with an anti-bullying program? Well, as far as I can see, the issue is that one of the sorts of bullying addressed by the program is homophobic bullying. And there are people who apparently feel that telling kids that it’s OK to be gay “actually bullies heterosexual children into submission for the gay agenda“.
I’d like to step back from this for a moment and try to delve into exactly what Safe Schools is about, because frankly, trying to find primary sources is leading me to a very tangled set of stories and threads. It doesn’t help that there seem to be two closely related programs under the Safe Schools umbrella, and so when people refer to Safe Schools it’s hard to tell which they are referring to. This also makes it a lot harder to check whether what they are saying is actually accurate.
I’m going to try to start with some definitions. The National Safe Schools Framework is, as far as I can tell, either founded by or endorsed by the Australian Government Department of Education and Training, and “provides Australian schools with a vision and a set of guiding principles that assist school communities to develop positive and practical student safety and wellbeing policies”. Its website is reasonably sparse, but it looks like it’s an optional program aimed at preventing bullying in schools – giving both students and teachers better strategies for dealing with situations where bullying might occur. The Department of Education page for this contains links to various resources about State and Territory anti-bullying policies, what to do if your child is bullied, and cybersafety.
The Safe Schools Framework is delivered through the Safe Schools Hub. This is clearly the main website for the program, and it is a very impressive resource. You can view the whole curriculum, and there are sections for parents, students and teachers. The site includes curriculum aims and activities for years prep to 12. Some of the ones for prep are really cute – using puppets and ‘showing we care’ cards to act out situations and show how we can behave in a caring way towards others. By years 5-8, kids are learning about what to do if someone else is being bullied, how to stay safe online, and how to show respect in relationships. In years 9-12, they learn more about the power of bystanders to prevent bullying, and have activities where they think about ways to make their school happier and safer for students. They also have links to resources about racism, eating disorders, drinking and peer pressure and supporting students with disabilities. Core values are respect, support, kindness and acceptance of differences.
The section for students in years 9-12 also contains quite a bit of information about sexuality and relationships. Reading through some of the sections, not a lot seems to have changed since my Social Studies class in year 10, though it was nice to see that there is a lot more discussion of what consent actually means than I ever recall getting. Hooray for teaching young people about consent! The main difference between what I remember being taught in the early 1990s and what is on this site is the section about homophobia, transphobia, same sex attraction and coming out. The resources for this section are provided by the Safe Schools Coalition.
I’m going to come back to just who the Safe Schools Coalition are in a bit, but first, I want to focus a bit more on what is in these resources, because I’m pretty sure that these are the sections that are causing certain Coalition Senators to get their collective knickers in a knot. The four resources provided by the Safe Schools Coalition (and let’s not get our coalitions mixed up here!) are Stand Out, which is a booklet that talks about the hows and whys of challenging homophobia and transphobia; OMG I’m Queer and OMG My Friend’s Queer, which are both compilations of teenagers telling their own stories about coming out and how people reacted to that, and about how they felt and what they did when their friends came out; and a link to Youth Central‘s page about same sex attraction, which talks about how to cope with coming out, and provides links to various counselling services.
All in all, it looks to me like sensible, clear information that does a reasonably good job of not being patronising and is age-appropriate. Kids in their late teens are likely to be entering their first relationships, and it’s certainly a time in their lives when sex and sexuality is on their minds, so let’s make sure they have the information they need to make good choices. After all, it’s not like teenagers don’t know how to use the internet – surely it’s better to make sure they have access to good information about sex, gender and relationships rather than having them rely on the extremely dubious information they are going to find online. (And which they will probably find no matter what else they access, because let’s face it, forbidden fruit is fascinating – but this is all the more reason, surely, to make sure they can access the sensible stuff too.)
So at this point, you might be wondering why, exactly, MP Cory Bernardi thinks that the program indoctrinates kids with Marxist cultural relativism, and just what made MP George Christensen liken it to pedophile grooming.
(I have my theories, but none of them are polite.)
And this, I think, is where the Safe Schools Coalition comes in. Because, where the Safe Schools Framework and Hub are focused on bullying prevention overall, and include homophobia and transphobia as two among many categories of bullying that they are concerned about, the Safe Schools Coalition’s focus is on creating ‘safe school environments for same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse students, staff and families’. And as such, they are an extremely comprehensive resource for people who might want to know how to host an inclusive school formal, how to challenge homophobia, how issues of gender might interact with school uniforms, and what it means to be intersex. They also have a booklet, All of Us, aimed at students in years 7 and 8, which invites students to imagine how they might explain gender to aliens, or to imagine how people around them might react if they were in love with someone of the same sex.
You can just about hear the sound of conservative politicians’ heads exploding as you read. After all, teaching teenagers to empathise with people who are gay or transgender is obviously the first step towards conversion…
(Which, now I think about it, suggests that our friends Bernardi and Christensen have a surprisingly fluid notion of how gender and sexuality works. Clearly, they have been indoctrinated with cultural relativism.)
Once again, I have not read every word of the site. There is an enormous amount of material here. But what I have read is, once again, age appropriate, straightforward, and focused on making sure that kids who might be queer or transgender have access to resources that say, essentially, it’s OK to be you.
Oh, and for the record, I didn’t spot anything on the site or linked to from the site that was aimed at kids in primary school. I’m not too sure where Bernardi and Christensen got that idea – I think they are confusing the Safe Schools Hub with the Safe Schools Coalition. I hope this is a genuine mistake and not a deliberate strategy to make Safe Schools sound more scary – believe me, it’s easy to get confused – but given their respective histories, I find it hard to give them much benefit of the doubt.
As you probably know, if you are interested enough in this topic to have read this far, Bernardi and Christensen successfully pushed for a report into the Safe Schools Program, which came back saying ‘actually, it’s mostly pretty good’. Turnbull has responded by making a number of changes to the program. Chief among them are the new requirement for students to require parental consent to participate, and schools to require parental consent to run the program. The program will now also be run only at high school levels, and the two booklets I mentioned above will be available only in one-on-one counselling, not as a classroom resource. This, however, is not enough for Christensen and Bernardi, who are also now campaigning for a further enquiry and pushing for its funding to be cut entirely from 2017. (I am having difficulty at this stage working out whether funding is definitely being cut or just maybe being cut, and whether they are trying to cut funding from the Safe Schools Coalition or from the Hub. I’m not sure that even they know. For what it’s worth, however, it seems pretty clear that in Victoria, at least, Daniel Andrews is determined to fund Safe Schools from the State budget if he has to.)
Christensen claims that the changes to the program will make sure that there is a good anti-bullying program that doesn’t proselytise for any political agenda. Presumably by this he means the famed Gay Agenda (if, like me, you need something to smile at by this point in the article, here is my favourite article ever about the gay agenda) (incidentally, never google that phrase if you want to retain your faith in humanity).
The trouble is, he is wrong, and kids – particularly queer kids – are going to be hurt as a result.
First, let’s talk about parental consent. I am sure that there are parents out there who would not want their children to be exposed to a program that tells them that yes, some people are gay, or bisexual, or genderqueer, and that’s OK. The trouble is, the children of these parents are probably the ones who most need access to this program. A young person who thinks that he or she might be gay, growing up in a house where being gay is absolutely unacceptable, is unlikely to be permitted to take part in this program, and he or she will thus be prevented from getting the information and support he or she needs. (And a young person who is straight and is being brought up in a household where they are taught that gay people will go to hell, and that if they truly love their gay friends, they must do everything they can to stop them from being gay… probably also needs access to a program where they learn about what bullying is and isn’t.)
Now, it’s true that young people whose parents refuse consent for them to be part of the Safe Schools program can still access counselling through schools. There are a couple of problems with this, however. First, certainly when I was at school, there was a lot of stigma attached to seeing the school counsellor (and endless gossip as to why a student might go). I would hope this has changed, but I suspect not. Secondly, the government recently replaced funding for secular counsellors in schools with funding for school chaplains. While many of these chaplains may be excellent at providing counselling and pastoral care to students regardless of their orientation, groups like the Australian Christian Lobby have done a very thorough job of equating Christianity with being anti-gay. It saddens me to say this, but if I were a student who was worrying about my sexual identity and wanting to talk to someone about it, the very last person I would approach would be a chaplain or other religious figure.
Another concern is that by requiring parental consent, this program effectively becomes opt-in. Depending on the culture of the school, and particularly after all the loud publicity about how Safe Schools is all about Gay Rainbow Gayness, the very act of opting in to the Safe Schools program could have the effect of identifying someone as either gay or an ally, which could then actually make them a target of bullying.
Similar problems arise with schools requiring parental approval to run the program – again, the schools where this program is most needed are likely to be the schools who are forced to opt out of it.
Running the program only in high school strikes me as a very sad thing indeed. There is no reference to sexuality in the early levels of the program – it’s all about good peer relationships, respect, and bullying prevention. It’s never too early to learn these things, and it’s good for schools to have a comprehensive program that they can use to create an anti-bullying culture.
As for the OMG I’m Queer and OMG My Friend’s Queer booklets, I am honestly bewildered as to why these are considered inappropriate for a high school classroom. They are not explicit in any way – they are personal stories of people’s experiences with coming out. And yes, there are links to other resources including Minus 18, a website for young people who are queer which contains the article about breast binding that so upset certain Liberal MPs (I have no idea where they got the bit about links to information on BDSM. I couldn’t find anything of the sort, and I was actively looking, because I wanted to know what it actually said, but no luck). I think it’s a pity to restrict their access – not least because, once again, asking to read them could be interpreted as a confession rather than, say, curiosity.
I’d also like to note that, once you take those two booklets out of the section on homophobia, there isn’t a lot left in that section. Basically, you have the link to Youth Central, which is pretty basic, though it has some good links to counselling, and you have the booklet, Stand Out, which is about challenging homophobia and transphobia in your school. It’s probably also worthy of note that the two resources they have removed spoke directly, peer-to-peer, to queer students. Stand Out speaks primarily to straight allies, and does not include any personal stories by young queer people or their friends, and Youth Central is a government website which provides primarily health information. Deliberately or otherwise, in removing these two resources, they have removed all queer voices from the discussion of homophobia. This is, in my view, a significant problem.
Aside from a general feeling that being queer is a bit icky, I think the underlying idea behind the government’s recently changes to Safe Schools is that parents have a right to raise their children with their own religious and cultural beliefs, and that parents know and want what is best for their children. And to a degree, this is true. But it forgets the fact that children have rights too, including the right to good information and education, and the right to be heard. Restricting a teenager’s access to sex education won’t necessarily stop him or her having sex – it will just make it less likely that the teen in question will do so safely, in ways that won’t lead to pregnancy or disease. Equally, telling a child that being gay is a choice and a sin won’t stop him or her being gay – it will just make him or her miserable, and probably damage your relationship with that child further down the line.
It’s not bullying when you tell someone to stop bullying other people.
It’s not discriminating against straight people when you teach them empathy for their gay peers.
It’s not sexualising children when you tell them that the shape of their genitals – or the genitals of the people they fall in love with – do not determine their character or identity.
Telling a child that homosexuality exists is not going to suddenly make them decide to be gay. It’s just going to make it a bit easier for them down the line if it turns out that they were gay all along.
We have state schools for a reason, and that reason is that the state has an interest in raising productive future members of society. That includes making sure kids can read and write, understand science, and know a bit about their history, among other things. The Safe Schools program – both the Hub and the Coalition – extends this, by teaching kids how to treat each other with respect and kindness, how to recognise bullying and stand up to it, and yes, how to manage their sexuality in a way that does not harm oneself or others.
These are good things that everyone needs to learn sooner or later, even our politicians.