Since its inception in Victoria in 2010, the Safe Schools program was Australia’s most controversial anti-bullying campaign. While grounded in good intentions and empirical evidence, critics of the program viewed it as a form of social engineering, a radical form of left-wing propaganda being imposed on students. Others believed it was sexualising students by exposing them to inappropriate content and material. Education Review takes an in-depth look at the program and asks you the question: What did we learn from Safe Schools?
The basis for it
The Safe Schools program was premised on two widely held facts: that LGBTIQ students exist and that most homophobic and transphobic incidents affecting youth take place at school. The National School Climate 2013 Survey found that “74.1% of LGBTIQ students were verbally bullied (e.g., called names, threatened) in the past year because of their sexual orientation and 55.2% because of their gender expression”. Research such as Day and Snapp also concluded that “students were less likely to report having experienced homophobic bullying and report more school connectedness in schools with more supportive practices” (2016). The Safe Schools program was created to tackle this issue in Australian schools and, by extension, reduce the disproportionately high rate of depression and suicide among LGBTIQ people.
What was it?
The program was run by the Safe Schools Coalition Australia, “a national coalition of organisations and schools working together to create safe and inclusive school environments for same-sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse students”. It was an opt-in program. The material, including written content, videos, posters and websites, sought to promote understanding and tolerance of LGBTIQ youth through real-life scenarios and education. Teachers could use as many or as few of the materials as they wished, and decisions relating to the suitability of content and material rested with school communities.
One of the most controversial parts of the program was the post-modern idea that gender is non-binary and fluid. It is a social construction and is no way related to one’s biological sex.
Another part of the program that received a lot of criticism appeared in The Guide to supporting a student to affirm or transition gender identity at school. On the issue of bathrooms, it suggested the following:
“Schools can also consider providing gender-neutral toilet options, which should be accessible to any student who wishes to use them and will help to establish a more inclusive environment for transgender and gender diverse students. There is no requirement to use a unisex or accessible toilet or changing room unless a student makes an active choice to do so.”
While it largely enjoyed the support of federal and state governments as well as organisations including Beyondblue and Headspace, the Safe Schools Program provoked a moral panic in some circles. Some of the most vocal critics were Nationals MP George Christensen, Family First Senator Bob Day and Australian Conservative Party founder and former Liberal Cory Bernardi.
In a speech to parliament, Mr Christensen accused the program of promoting a “queer gender theory” and said the program recommended pornographic material, sex clubs and sex shops, among other things. He also said materials included information on chest-binding, penis-tucking and unlocking parental safety controls.
“The parents would probably call the police because it would sound a lot like grooming work that a sexual predator might undertake,” Mr Christensen told parliament in 2016.
Family First Senator Bob Day labelled the program “anti-parent” for its lack of consultation and for exposing ideas that were antithetical to many families’ values.
Mr Berardi, who called for all Commonwealth funding for the program to be scrapped, said the anti-bullying program “bullies and intimidates children into giving the answers demanded by the authors”, asked children as young as 11 to consider they “had no genitals” and was an unashamed “social engineering project” orchestrated by the political Left.
Unsurprisingly, views among academics, support groups and organisations varied markedly. Most argued the content and material was age-appropriate and educationally sound. Many also ridiculed the implicit or explicit belief that the program was sexualising “innocent”, sheltered children.
As Victoria Rawlings from the University of Sydney told The Conversation:
“Much of the debate relating to Safe Schools so far has included commentators explicitly and implicitly suggesting that young people require protection from the concepts that the program raises.”
David Rhodes, a senior lecturer in education at Edith Cowan University, also questioned the so-called “inappropriateness” of the content and materials following a review:
“The epithets of ‘dyke’ and ‘faggot’ are not limited to secondary classrooms. Principals and parent organisations should be able to advocate for the use of Safe Schools Coalition materials to be used in our primary schools if they deem it appropriate to their school context. Sexuality and gender identity do not appear out of the ether in Year 7.”
Interestingly, the views of run-of-the-mill teachers engaging with the program on a regular basis were conspicuously absent from the debate most of the time.
The 2016 review
Following reports of inappropriate content and material being used in classrooms, in 2016 the Turnbull Government triggered a review of the program.
Entitled a Review of Appropriateness and Efficacy of the Safe Schools Coalition Australia Program Resources, the review was written by Emeritus Professor in Education at the University of Western Australia, Bill Louden.
The review made the following findings, which were not consistent with the criticism made:
- The four official Guides were consistent with the aims of the program and appropriate for use in schools.
- The three official posters were suitable for use in both secondary and primary schools, although some of the terms and concepts used might be unfamiliar to primary-aged students.
- The main resource, All of Us, was consistent with the aims of the program, was age-appropriate and aligned with the Australian Curriculum. Some material might not be used by some schools or teachers, depending on teacher judgements and school policies.
- The resources created by young people, OMG I’m Queer, OMG My Friend’s Queer and Stand Out, were not intended as classroom resources. They were not available in primary schools and normally available by request in secondary schools. They might not be appropriate for faith-based schools. More guidance regarding the contexts in which they should and should not be used and the suitability of the material should be provided to schools. Guidance on the links to third-party websites that are designed for schools should also be provided.
- Parental consultation and involvement in the program was needed as well as guides to familiarise parents with the nature of the content and resources.
What did we learn from Safe Schools?
Following the federal government defunding the program in 2016 and states replacing the Safe Schools with more over-arching anti-bullying programs, a future iteration of the program seems unlikely. This month, we’d like education professionals to look back at the program and consider the following:
- Was the content and resources useful and age-appropriate or could some things have been better?
- Was the program too flexible in allowing schools a lot of choice and did this lead to problems of interpretation?
- Do LGBTIQ students require a more targeted anti-bullying program or can their needs be addressed through broad anti-bullying campaigns?
- To what extent do education professionals believe their experiences of the program were supplanted by a vocal political class?
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