Why Safe Schools is a necessity: “Safety at school is a very real issue for LGBTQIA students”

The Safe Schools Coalition has has been under fire in recent weeks, following assertions made by the likes of Senator Cory Bernardi and Lyle Shelton (Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby), who claim that Safe Schools pushed a sexual agenda onto teens. But what does the Safe Schools program actually entail?

Created by a number of experts in the field, including La Trobe University staff, the safe schools anti-bullying program aims to educate teenagers about same sex attraction and intersex and gender diversity, as well as create a safe environment for LGBTQIA-identifying students at school. The program consists of a set of resources made available to teachers at participating schools, and is developed in alignment with the national curriculum. It aims to address the alarming statistics that report a much higher rate of anxiety, depression, panic disorders, self-harm and suicide risk in young LGBTQIA individuals.

For Associate Professor Fiona Kelly, an expert in the legal issues faced by transgender children and youth who has conducted qualitative interviews with parents of transgender children from across Australia, it’s clear that the Safe Schools Coalition is a much needed resource. While the primary focus of her study is on the challenges created by the requirement that the Family Court provide approval for cross-sex hormone treatment, the important role the Safe Schools Coalition plays in the lives of young trans people has emerged strongly from the interviews. More than half of the families interviewed had received direct assistance from Safe Schools and all indicated that Safe Schools had been vital to their child having a positive transition process at school.

Jasmine, whose 17 year old daughter transitioned in Year 10, contacted Safe Schools to help her talk to the school. Representatives from Safe Schools met with Jasmine and her daughter and also accompanied them to their meetings with the school. As Jasmine explained,

I knew about Safe Schools Coalition and I thought we need to get them on board. So we met with them and I was really glad. They were so supportive. I was very thankful to have them there [at the school meeting].

Lila, who has a six year old daughter, was also grateful for the assistance of Safe Schools. As she explained:

“Safe Schools came in and spoke to the staff, who were all really supportive, but they still needed Safe Schools. I mean it’s a tricky thing to manage for a school. Even though they’re supportive, they don’t know what they’re doing. So it was really helpful to have experts talk to the school. We couldn’t have done it without Safe Schools.”

By contrast, Pauline’s daughter transitioned prior to the creation of Safe Schools. She recounted the challenge she faced in trying to find a supportive school for her daughter:

There was no Safe Schools Coalition then. So I just had to ring around a lot of different schools and gauge their reaction, decide if I thought it was safe, and make a choice based on that.

La Trobe Law School academic Hannah Robert, whose recent research addresses legal parentage across diverse families, agrees that Safe Schools is a much needed initiative.

“Safety at school is a very real issue for LGBTQIA students. If these students attend a religious school, the school is legally still entitled to discriminate against them under section 83 of the Equal Opportunity Act. This legal loophole still allows faith-based organisations to discriminate on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status or gender identity where the discrimination conforms with the religion’s doctrines and beliefs or ‘is reasonably necessary to avoid injury to the religious sensitivities of adherents of the religion’. Similar loopholes exist in most other States and Territories. In Victoria, the loophole was tightened somewhat in recent years, but the government is under increasing political pressure to remove it altogether. Laws like this create an environment that allows queer voices to be continually silenced because even if students are not expelled, discrimination against them remains a viable option for schools, and can function as a hovering threat. An initiative like Safe Schools however creates a more welcoming environment for queer students and provides them with the support they require at school”.

By starting the Safe Schools Story Project, La Trobe University Student Cecelia Devlin, along with Ruth Horsfall want to make sure that the broader community can get a glimpse of the positive influence the Safe Schools initiative has had on people’s lives. In an attempt to attach faces, names and stories to this debate, they started collecting testimonials from people all around Australia, detailing how Safe Schools (could have) made a difference in their life.

“It makes no sense to attack a program aiming to help those continually silenced”, co-founder Ruth Horsfall comments. “Especially queer kids who are currently at school and having an awful and lonely experience. No one is asking them what they want from this anti-bullying program.”

“To us, the creators, and our small but dedicated team of young adult queers, the Safe Schools Program is more than a positive initiative,” Cecelia Devlin adds. “It’s vital to the lives of young queer individuals from all backgrounds. The stories we have collected and published [on SSSP] are a testament to this fact. Without tailored support, education and role models, queer people suffer and the rates of mental illness, suicide and trauma in our community cannot be denied.”

The overwhelming number of testimonials make it clear that Safe Schools not only plays a vital role in the lives of young LGBTQIA+ people, but also provides the community with ways to support and educate families and schools, creating a positive experience for everyone involved.

To submit your story to the Safe Schools Story Project, please refer to their website.

La Trobe