Listen: Stephen O’Doherty on how Christian schools are responding to the needs of LGBTI students
Part 4 of the 5-part Safe Schools Series
Faith-based schools are coming under scrutiny, as supporters of the Safe Schools Coalition question their attitudes towards LGBTI students.
While some Christian schools have embraced the Safe Schools classroom program, others have rejected it on the grounds of its underlying world view, and are promoting themselves as an education alternative for conservative families.
Hope 103.2 spoke to Stephen O’Doherty, the head of Christian Schools Australia overseeing 140 independent schools, and asked him about his organisation’s approach to transgender and same-sex-attracted students.
He said he was very aware of the specific bullying LGBTI students face, and their need for a safe environment—and believed Christian schools, by definition, should offer that kind of environment.
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“In all Christian schools that I’m aware of – and you’d hope in all schools in Australia – the emotional, physical, educational and social safety of students are their primary concerns,” he said.
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“We are pastoral communities that care for people as being children of God. However they present, whatever they like to do, whatever they identify with, they are in the image of God. When that central point is the dominating worldview of the philosophy of your school, every aspect of the school works to ensure that the school is a safe environment.”
He said it was a contradiction to assume that faith-based schools needed a special program to make them inclusive and safe.
“The idea that you have to bring in a specialized program to make a school a safe school, is sort of anathema to that whole idea that [Christian] schools…as communities of Christ are safe by nature.”
Did Review of Safe Schools Let Faith Schools ‘Off The Hook’?
In March 2016, the Federal Government commissioned education professor Bill Louden to conduct an independent review of the Safe Schools program.
Some right-wing MPs called the review a ‘stitch-up’, saying it wasn’t rigorous enough, yet others, like La Trobe University academic Timothy Jones, believed the review was far too yielding towards the views of religious schools.
A specialist in the history of gender, sexuality and religion, Mr Jones wrote in The Conversation that the review “lets faith-based schools off the hook”.
“Rather than letting faith-based schools off the hook, surely we should be working harder to make these spaces safe for all children.”
The review found that some of the program’s classroom exercises – such as writing an anti-homophobia pledge and keeping a journal of LGBTI-friendly activities – might be “more difficult for students from a family with conservative social or religious views on same-sex attraction”.
This finding was too religion-friendly in the opinion of Mr Jones, who wants to see LGBTI supportive policies rolled out in religious schools as much as in the state education system.
“Rather than letting faith-based schools off the hook, surely we should be working harder to make these spaces safe for all children,” he wrote.
Aware of the Needs of Gay, Bi and Gender-Diverse Students
But while elements of the church and Christian education have a history of ostracising or mistreating same-sex attracted students, Mr O’Doherty said most Christian schools today were no longer dismissive of the struggles faced by LGBTI students.
Many are now seeking to put specific care policies in place.
“It won’t surprise you to know that these are issues that every school deals with, including, of course, Christian schools,” he said, “and principals come to us asking for advice, or to tell a story about what’s happening in their own schools.
“Particularly the principals that I’ve spoken to, all of them want to… compassionately deal with every need that a child has…meeting them at their point of need, just as Jesus did…and help them to work through those issues.”
Penny Drops as Christian Teachers Hear Transgender Statistics
In May 2016, Christian Schools Australia held a symposium called ‘Exploring Christian School Responses to Contemporary Issues of Gender and Sexuality’ – aimed at making principals more aware of the needs of LGBTI students.
Around 90 Christian educators sat and listened as Dr Stephen Stathis, one of Australia’s leading experts on child and adolescent gender diversity, described the painful experiences of transgendered children and teenagers.
“We’ve got 1000 kids in our school—do you mean 15 of them [are] confused as their gender emerges?”
“It was entirely illuminating for all of us to hear about…gender dysphoria, kids who were born with mixed genitals, or kids who were born with other genetic issues that mean, for them, boy-girl-gender issues, sexuality, is not a straightforward matter,” Mr O’Doherty said.
“When you hear that the numbers according to medical science might be 15 in 1000, most of the principals in the room on that day said, ‘Well, hang on a minute, we’ve got 1000 kids in our school. Do you mean 15 of them have some sort of medical reason for being confused…as their gender emerges during puberty?’
“The answer they were given was, ‘Yes, that’s true.’”
Mr O’Doherty said the care and concern in the room was palpable.
“The universal response is that we need to understand more about what’s going on here so that we can compassionately deal with these kids at their point of need,” he said. “That’s the desire of every school principal, certainly in Christian schools, and, I’ve got no doubt, in every school around the country.”
What Are Christian Schools Really Like for LGBTI Students?
There’s no shortage of stories in the media about LGBTI students coming up against homophobic attitudes in Australia’s Christian schools.
In 2015 a gay father reported that his daughter was silenced at a Christian college after mentioning her dad was in a same-sex relationship, while in Bendigo a gay student known for cross-dressing, was turned away from a church service at the Christian school he had attended because he came wearing skin-tight vinyl pants.
Gay and lesbian students have reported being forced to leave their Christian school, or to remain silent and attend counselling over their sexuality. And in recent years Christian schools came under media scrutiny over a 30-year-old law that still allowed them to expel students for being openly gay.
Other faith-based schools, however, are reportedly very LGBTI-friendly, such as the Catholic school in Melbourne where a transgender girl, who is a prefect, is said to be treated with love and respect.
When Hope 103.2 asked Stephen O’Doherty if some faith-based schools were unsafe and uncomfortable places for LGBTI students, he said Christian schools – at least those in his care – took very inclusive approaches to diversity.
Students Claiming to be Expelled Over Sexuality
When it comes to students claiming to be expelled from Christian schools over of their sexual orientation, Mr O’Doherty said these cases were never clear cut.
“In every case that I have examined, that’s simply not been true,” he said. “Where students have left a Christian school because, in their mind, they have come out as a gay student, it’s [turned out] the student was acting out in that school in a way that put them into conflict with the school’s discipline and other policies.
“In every case that I’ve investigated, it’s been a challenge to the authority of the school that’s been the issue, rather than the student’s sexuality.”
“Sometimes you find that activists make other students feel unsafe and also defy the right of the school, for instance, to determine a certain uniform policy or a certain behavior policy, or to teach a certain view of sexuality.”
“Christian schools do teach a certain view about marriage, sexuality and human relationships. And there is plenty of room for debate. But within the confines of the school, there need to be some rules about how that debate is engaged in and how we treat each other with respect within the school community.
“And in every case that I’ve investigated, it’s been a challenge to the authority of the school that’s been the issue, rather than the student’s sexuality.”
On Gay Partners at Christian School Formals
One Anglican grammar school in Brisbane has come under fire in the media more than once, for banning same-sex partners at school formals. It’s an issue that CSA has had to grapple with frequently.
“As this issue has got more airing…[and] has become more prevalent in our society, schools have found themselves sometimes at the point of conflict with students and their parents, and often it’s around that Year 12 formal,” Mr O’Doherty said.
He said some schools allow students to bring anyone they like, from a partner to a friend, while others ban boyfriends and girlfriends from formals altogether—for gay and ‘straight’ students alike.
“That’s a way of ensuring that kids who don’t have partners don’t feel left out, that they’re not bullied by others for not having partners.”
Mr O’Doherty’s general rule of thumb around school formals within the CSA network, is to make sure sexuality doesn’t become a platform for activism.
“What we ask students to do, and our advice to schools is always to say, ‘Look, don’t make it a political issue. Don’t placard, don’t barricade. Don’t come dressed in something that’s so outlandish that what you’ve done is elevated your sexuality above other aspects of your personality’.”
The Anglican School Embracing The Safe Schools Program
Not all Christian schools are opposed to the Safe Schools Coalition.
Overnewton Anglican Community College, an independent co-ed school with two campuses in Melbourne, has joined the SSCA and has been teaching its lessons, mostly to students in years 9 to 12, as well as some Year 8 classes.
“Our school was not as safe for same-sex-attracted, intersex and gender-diverse students as we had thought”.
Principal Jim Laussen wrote a column for the ABC about his support for the program, saying the school joined the coalition after realising in 2013 that “our school was not as safe for same-sex-attracted, intersex and gender-diverse students as we had thought”.
“Some students were avoiding school; others weren’t able to participate fully,” he wrote. “We knew we needed a rigorous and well-researched program to support them.”
He said it was so far having a very positive impact.
“When our senior footballers tell their opponents not to use ‘gay’ as a derogatory term, we know that these changes are having an impact,” he wrote.
Mr Laussen said the coalition resources played a “small but valuable” role in making the school’s culture more positive.
“We have never been pressured to promote homosexuality as a preferred lifestyle, to encourage students to come out…Instead, the Safe Schools Coalition has helped us teach our students how to better navigate the differences that they see each day. We have always encouraged our children not to use gender-based nor racist putdowns; now we are asking them to add slurs about sexuality and gender diversity to the list.”
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