Why Safe Schools program is not just for gay kids or straight kids

Why Safe Schools program is not just for gay kids or straight kids

We can't know for certain whether the Safe Schools program itself works.

It hasn't been going long enough for one of those splendid longitudinal studies which examines the impact of policies, strategies, actions on any group of people.

Safe Schools hasn't been going long enough for a study which examines the impact of policies, strategies and actions on any group of people.

Safe Schools hasn't been going long enough for a study which examines the impact of policies, strategies and actions on any group of people.

We are only about four years in and the early returns from Victoria say the news is good. Cuts down on conflict and bullying.

But that kind of program could look a little scary, right? Ideas zooming into our schools, telling kids it's ok to be gay, lesbian, trans, confused or questioning. It certainly frightened the mother of a year two girl at Overnewton Anglican Community College in Victoria. Lord knows, she was frightened enough to ring the principal, Jim Laussen​, because of material she had read on the website of the Australian Christian Lobby.

"I said this [on the ACL site] information is a complete distortion ... your daughter won't be aware of this program until she is in year eight."


It's the only time since the introduction of the material in 2012 that Laussen, who has been principal at the church school for more than 16 years, has had any complaint about any of the Safe Schools material. And remember this is a church school with students who go to chapel each week and have compulsory religious instruction. You'd think if there was a place where parents would be in a lather about any of this, a church school would be that place.

In fact, Laussen's had no trouble with parents, teachers or politicians. He says the program has been a major success.

"We see it very much as an extension of our antibullying program. It is unfortunate that the current debate is giving this so much space."

Most importantly, kids who formerly felt excluded are now coming to school, engaged with school.

Won't programs like this cause an epidemic of, yikes, gayness?

I'm straight. My parents were straight. Looks like my kids are straight. None of my best friends is gay although I did have a lesbian bridesmaid, now an award-winning playwright. So, yeah, deadset heteronormative, procreation-positive, family values. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

But I've always liked a touch of the research to tell me how or if things work. Which is clearly not how many of those in the anti Safe Schools brigade think. I mean, did you see pamphlet prepared and funded former Liberal MP Chris Miles, which basically claimed that same sex marriage would ruin life as we know it in Australia? Not a hint of research to support his view that straight people make better parents. Not a nod to the work of academic researchers which shows clearly that kids of same sex parents are just as likely to be as well-adjusted as kids of straight parents.

The best thing about Safe Schools and programs like it offered in many schools around the world is that it feeds a need which leading education researchers say will make a positive change to the way kids are treated at school.

Not just gay kids. Not just straight kids. All kids who might have questions to ask about the way their sexuality is unfolding.

Victoria Rawlings is an education academic at the University of Sydney whose PhD looked at bullying in schools, particularly that which used sexuality or gender as the focus. She found teachers often ignored the violence and aggressions around gender and sexuality because they felt it was inevitable or unimportant.

"And if no-one is talking about the problem, then no-one is recognising that there is a problem; and then it's dismissed and nothing will be addressed.

"Most teachers don't know how to respond and so that means students [who are bullying] recognise that there are no social or institutional repercussions. For teachers, there is no training and no discussion about how to approach it. They are taught to be more aware of school uniforms than violence."

Rawlings is right at the beginning of her career in academic research. But Bob ​Lingard, a professor of education at the University of Queensland, has amassed 40 years of looking at the way students learn. In work published nearly 20 years ago, Lingard and his co-authors showed that teachers found it very difficult to work with and value difference – and he says results today say more or less the same thing.

"We have incredibly supportive and caring teachers but they are perplexed by difference," he says. Lingard says Safe Schools programs will provide the very resources teachers need to make it possible to teach that difference, to help students to accept that difference. Don't we want to stop bullying?

Maybe the Prime Minister needs to sit in on a Safe Schools class and take his entire government with him. Instead, he's supported an investigation into Safe Schools and now Education Minister Simon Birmingham has asked all education ministers in states and territories to ensure that parents are consulted.

Lingard is not pleased with the level of educational leadership being offered by this government.

"Why doesn't Turnbull tell them to get lost? He's pandering to the worst elements who don't pick up on what most of us in Australia believe and think."

And that's precisely what most Australians think and believe. Safe Schools will lead to a safer Australia. Isn't that what we all want?

Twitter @jennaprice. Facebook www.facebook/jennapricejournalist Email: jennapricejournalist@gmail.com

Jenna Price

Jenna Price is a Fairfax columnist, and an academic at the University of Technology, Sydney.

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