Part 1 of the 5-part Safe Schools Series
It’s a matter of many strong and varied opinions, whether the Safe Schools Coalition and its All Of Us program for is helpful or harmful. The Hope 103.2 ‘Safe Schools Series‘ of stories covers a range of Christian-based responses to the program, to help parents and students form their own views. Our round-up of facts and figures below gets you started with the basics.
What is the Safe Schools Coalition?
The Safe Schools Coalition Australia (SSCA) is a national network of schools and organisations working to make schools more inclusive for same sex attracted and gender diverse students, staff and families.
It’s convened by the Foundation for Young Australians, a quite political youth activism organisation that exists to create societal change—in areas like social equality, sexual diversity, climate change, asylum seekers, the minimum voting age, employment, education and innovation.
SSCA grew out of the Safe Schools Coalition Victoria, which was birthed in 2010 and funded by the Victorian government. Its website provides news and advice on making schools safe and inclusive, and promotes events like camps, ‘gender diverse formals’ for LGBTI teens, pride marches, and IDAHOT Day (International Day Against Homophobia & Transphobia).
The coalition is best known for the All Of Us program – its classroom teaching program for Year 7 and 8 students, released in November 2015. The program has drawn much media and political attention over its teaching on sexuality and gender diversity.
- How Should I Respond To Safe Schools? Advice For Parents
- The Problem With the Safe Schools Program, ‘All Of Us‘
- Are Christian Schools ‘Safe Schools’ Already?
What Happens When a School Joins the Coalition?
Membership of the Safe Schools Coalition allows access to teacher training, and signals to the community that a school is intentionally welcoming towards LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) students.
Currently more than 500 schools are listed as members. The most common request the coalition receives from member schools is for staff training in acceptance of sexual and gender diversity.
As of March this year, 196 schools had requested the All Of Us classroom resource, but no school is yet known to have taught the full eight-lesson program.
School membership of the Safe Schools Coalition is so far voluntary, and member schools aren’t currently obliged to participate at any level, or to teach the All Of Us course.
The Victorian government, though, intends to make membership compulsory for all its public high schools by the end of 2018 – a commitment it back-flipped on but then returned to in March. It is unclear whether they will enforce the 8-week-course as part of the Victorian education curriculum, or leave that choice to teachers.
And The Safe Schools Hub? What’s That?
The Safe Schools Hub, set up in 2014, is the official national website administered by the Department of Education & Training, hosting a range of anti-bullying resources for schools.
It’s aimed at increasing safety and reducing bullying of all forms to create happy inclusive school environments. Resources on the hub cover topics like positive body image, bullying, cyber safety, kindness, respect, teamwork and Peer Support programs.
The All Of Us series on sexual and gender diversity was previously hosted on the SSCA website, but after a federally-ordered review in March 2016, it’s now been moved over to the Safe Schools Hub.
LGBTI and Homophobia in Schools: What are the Statistics?
The Safe Schools Coalition wants to reduce the numbers of same-sex-attracted and transgender youth who are suffering bullying at school, mental health issues and suicide.
Their work is based on research like the Writing Themselves In the report, a 2010 study into the wellbeing of LGBTI students, La Trobe University’s 5th National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health 2013, and the From Blues to Rainbows study funded by Beyond Blue.
Up to 10% of high school students are same-sex attracted according to the coalition’s Safe Schools Do Better guide, while 4% are gender diverse and 1.7% are intersex. Three-quarters of these students experience abuse or discrimination, 80 percent of the abuse happens at school, and 8 in 10 don’t feel supported by their school.
They’re suffering poor school results, mental health troubles and increased suicide rates as a result.
The Australian Christian Lobby has questioned the reliability of the 10% same-sex-attracted figure, given that the ‘5th National Survey’ didn’t apply strict random sampling—but instead recruited many of its young participants through LGBTI social media sites and support groups. And the sexologist Liz Walker, who has written her own review of the All Of Us program, says it overlooks statistics showing that same-sex attraction decreases between the teen and adult years.
Regardless of exact percentages, though, it’s well known that thousands of young Australians suffer bullying and mental health issues as a result of their sexuality and gender identities.
Why A Special Program On Gender And Sexual Diversity?
Critics of the Safe Schools program have questioned the need for a special program crafted to support LGBTI students—when schools already have anti-bullying strategies.
In response, Professor Jayne Lucke, director of the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University, said that traditional supports and anti-bullying measures are often inadequate for those suffering homophobic or transphobic abuse.
“Families are often important sources of support for young people experiencing difficulties, but for many LGBTI young people families may not be supportive—leaving students with nowhere to turn for information or advice except their teachers and mentors at school,” Professor Lucke wrote in The Age.
“Until recently few schools challenged entrenched cultures of homophobia and transphobia, or did not have the resources or expertise to respond appropriately to provide support. This is where programs like Safe Schools can make a difference.”
She added that a special program on topics of homosexuality and gender diversity helped to destigmatise and break down the sense of taboo around them.
“Acknowledging diversity in schools creates room for the important discussion about choice,” she wrote. “Discussions about sexuality and gender can help to demystify feelings of difference and shame.”
Roz Ward, one of the program’s key authors, has gone as far as saying that program is more proactive than just anti-bullying. She urged teachers at a Safe Schools Symposium to place very clear messages in their school newsletters, announcing that “Safe Schools Coalition is about supporting gender and sexual diversity”.
“Not about ‘celebrating diversity’,” she said. “Not about ‘stopping bullying’…not just ‘being nice to everyone’.”
What’s In The Safe Schools ‘All Of Us’ Program?
The SSCA’s 8-week teaching program All Of Us, on ‘Understanding Gender Diversity, Sexual Diversity and Intersex Topics for Years 7 and 8’, is often referred to as ‘the Safe Schools program’.
Its title is a reference to the program’s aim: to make school a happy and safe place for ‘all of us’—LGBTI students included.
The program consists of:
- A Unit Guide for teachers outlining eight lessons
- A classroom Poster
- A set of Student Handouts
- A series of short videos for class viewing, profiling seven young people and their experiences of gender and sexual diversity, to help students better empathise with LGBTI students.
The eight lessons cover stereotypes, the difference between sexuality and gender identity, sexual diversity, the meanings of terms like intersex, transgender, cisgender and pansexual, and how to be a supportive friend and ally to LGBTI students.
The course also promotes gender as being ‘non-binary’ and based on ‘how you feel’, and one of the lessons works to break down the ‘heteronormative’ view – the assumption that heterosexuality is the norm. It teaches that expressions like ‘that’s so gay’ are hurtful to same-sex-attracted students, and suggests that asking whether a baby is a ‘boy or girl’ is outdated and discriminatory.
One student handout reads:
“Gender isn’t quite as simple as whether you’re ‘male’ or ‘female’. Everyone has their own gender identity in relation to masculinity and femininity. Some identify with both, and some don’t identify with either; it’s up to the individual to describe what gender identity fits them best.”
What Else Does The Safe Schools Coalition Provide?
The Safe Schools Coalition supplies schools with a range of additional resources, including the following:
Student Booklets – Written By Young People from Minus18
- ‘OMG I’m Queer’, written for young people coming out as LGBTI
- ‘OMG My Friend’s Queer’, on how to support a friend who is ‘coming out’
- ‘Stand Out’, on how to stand up against transphobia and homophobia at school
The Stand Out booklet has a section titled “Religion”, which expresses a balanced response towards Christian or faith-based views of diversity.
“Getting religious schools to challenge homophobia can be a difficult task…For some people, their religious beliefs about homosexuality being wrong will not change. In these cases, try to talk about challenging homophobia as an issue that is about being safe and being allowed to be happy and healthy. Everyone from every religion can agree that we all should have the right to be healthy and happy, so challenging homophobia is about achieving that shared aim.”
These booklets have been restricted by for one-on-one distribution by key staff in all states except Victoria. Minus18 also publishes a booklet called ‘OMG I’m Trans’, however, this is not included in the Safe Schools Program.
- Safe Schools Do Better (outlining the benefits of supporting LGBTI students)
- Guide to Kick-Starting Your Safe School
- Guide to Hosting Inclusive School Formals
- Guide to Supporting a Student to Affirm or Transition Gender Identity at School
The booklet on transitioning a student’s gender identity encourages a student-led process that may exclude parents.
“If a student does not have family or carer support for the process, a decision to proceed should be made based on the school’s duty of care for the student’s well-being and their level of maturity to make decisions about their needs. It may be possible to consider a student a mature minor and able to make decisions without parental consent.”
Posters for Display At School
Three posters are available for schools, displaying slogans including:
- “Change Is Coming”
- “Discrimination Free Zone”
- “What Are Your Plans For IDAHOT” (promoting the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia).
How Old Are The Kids Being Taught The Safe Schools Program?
All Of Us is designed to be taught to students in years 7 and 8, and an independent review by education expert Professor William Louden in March, found it to be age-appropriate.
The Louden review said the student-created resources (OMG I’m Queer, OMG My Friend’s Queer and Stand Out) are not suitable for primary students, but that the SSCA’s posters could “reasonably be displayed in primary schools”, but the Federal Government has now restricted all of the materials to high schools only.
Parents of transgender children are currently lobbying the Victorian government to bring the program into Victoria’s primary schools.
What Changed After the Government’s Review?
The Federal Government commissioned education professor Bill Louden to scrutinise the Safe Schools program and although his report deemed the lessons age-appropriate for years 7 and 8, he conceded some activities could be inappropriate for more conservative students.
These include the writing of a Pledge promising to be a good friend and ‘ally’, and a scenario exercise where students are asked to imagine they are same-sex-attracted.
After the review, Education Minister Simon Birmingham announced a series of changes to the program, which the Victorian government has chosen to ignore. The changes include:
- Removal of branding and links to Minus18 (LGBTI youth website), and banning any other third-party links
- Removal of activities in which students have to write an ally ‘Pledge’, imagine that they are same-sex attracted, and keep a log of their anti-homophobia activities
- Moving of the Safe Schools program to the government-controlled Safe Schools Hub, to align it with other anti-bullying and equality resources and prevent promotion of 3rd party organisations
- Restricting the materials to high schools only
- Restricting the Minus18 resources OMG I’m Queer, OMG My Friend’s Queer and Stand Out to case-by-case distribution to individuals only
- Requiring parent body approval for Safe Schools membership
- Requiring parental consent for participation in the Safe Schools classes
The Victorian Government under Premier Daniel Andrews has resolved to retain the controversial activities and will not follow through on the Federal Government’s changes—even if that means it has to fund the program from the state budget.
What About Penis Tucking, Chest Binding and the Gender Fairy?
Media reports have raised confusion over whether the Safe Schools Program teaches about ‘penis tucking’ and ‘chest binding’ – practices used by transgendered people to hide their body parts.
These practices are not mentioned in any of the materials distributed in schools. However, they are discussed on the website of Minus18 – the LGBTI youth organisation that helped write the All Of Us course.
The original Safe Schools resources contained Minus18 links and branding but the Federal government ordered in March that 3rd party links be removed. In Victoria, the state government has refused to make those changes.
A number of the classroom videos promote Minus 18’s online forums as a place for students to seek support and encouragement if they’re questioning their sexuality or gender.
As for The Gender Fairy, that’s a book for young children about gender diversity that the Australian Christian Lobby brought to the media’s attention. It is not provided as part of the Safe Schools program either, however, the SSCA mentions the book on its website, and recommends it for school libraries.
- Safe Schools & LGBTI Students: What Would Jesus Do?
- The Hope Media Safe Schools Interview Series
- Are Christian Schools ‘Safe Schools’ Already?
- How Should I Respond to ‘Safe Schools’? Advice for Parents
- The Problem With the Safe Schools Program, ‘All Of Us’
- The Basic Facts About The Safe Schools Program, ‘All Of Us’