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What Is Australia’s Safe Schools Program?

If you what to know more about the Safe Schools Program, check out this guide.
A group of protesters at a Hands Off Safe Schools rallyGetty

There’s nothing sweeter than seeing teachers going out of their way to make their students feel safe and appreciated. From something as small as high fives and fist bumps, to writing poems and giving goodie bags, it’s apparent that in 2019 teachers are starting taking care of their students’ mental health as well as their education.

In Australia, the State of Victoria has set out on implementing a program with similar values, targeted at a particularly vulnerable student demographic: LGBTI kids. A recent survey has found that 61 percent of LGBTI kids have experienced verbal homophobic abuse, and 80 percent of that abuse was reported to occur at school. These startling statistics indicate a vital need for a safer learning environment for queer kids at risk of bullying. 

However, the program is not without its controversies and has received a lot of pushback from politicians. In this article, we’re going to take a deep dive into the Safe Schools program and find out what it’s about and why it received opposition despite its positive messaging.

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What Is The Safe Schools Program?

According to the Victoria State Government’s Education and Training website, the Safe Schools initiative is a program aimed at educating principals, teachers, and school communities on how to create a safe and inclusive environment for LGBTI students.

Again, the statistics bear a harsh truth. Over half of LGBTI kids face discrimination and abuse for their sexual orientation and gender identity, and as a result, LGBTI kids have the highest rates of suicide and suicide attempts in Australia today. A program that equips adults with the proper knowledge and training has the potential to help save kids’ lives!

How It Began

The Safe Schools program began in Victoria in 2010, spearheaded by the Safe Schools Coalition Australia, and vetted for by openly gay Senator Penny Wong, who sought federal funding in the initial years. The voluntary program gained traction after its success in Victoria and was picked up nationally starting in 2013. By February 2016, 490 schools all across Australia were members of the program.

By December 2016, the Education Department of Victoria took the reins of the program.

What Does Safe Schools Teach?

The Safe Schools program offers a variety of resources and materials to schools to help educators learn how to “prevent and respond to bullying and discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or intersex status.” 

According to the website, the program also involved a review of school policies, as well as training for staff and the creation of student alliances that foster an environment that is more inclusive and accepting.

Teaching manuals, videos, children’s books, and other materials are provided to both school administrators, teachers, and students as well, depending on what the school agrees to take on. The contents of the materials centre on educating the trainee on gender and sexual diversity.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it compulsory for all schools?

No. The Safe Schools Coalition doesn’t force schools to join the program. Schools are also given the choice to use however many resources they deem necessary for their school.

Is the Safe Schools curriculum a program for students?

Not necessarily. Some people mistakenly call the program the “Safe Schools curriculum”, but the term is false because the initiative doesn’t focus on students. Instead, the program aims to teach educators and school administrators. Teachers can then decide to pass on the information they learned to their students.

Is it funded by the government?

The federal government used to provide funding, but it was eventually withdrawn in October 2016. 

Does the Safe Schools program teach radical gender theory?

Some parents have pushed back against the program based on the assumption that the program will encourage kids to explore different gender identities or teach them radical gender theory. That is not the case at all, the program simply teaches students and teachers to be kinder, more sensitive, and more inclusive to LGBTI youth.

Backlash And Controversy

The program has received criticism from Coalition politicians like Mark Latham and Victorian opposition leader Matthew Guy, whose party criticised the initiative for “imposing a politically correct gender and sexuality agenda on schools” and supposedly cluttering the current school curriculum. 

There was also a bit of controversy when Safe Schools’ founder, Roz Ward, was suspended from La Trobe University in June 2016 for saying the Australia flag was “racist”. Ward has received backlash and criticism from conservatives for “Marxist” and radical ideology, which the activist denies in an op-ed.

A group of protesters at a Hands Off Safe Schools rally
(Credit: Getty)

In 2016, the program was placed under review and was eventually defunded by the Turnbull government. During the initial review, Safe Schools advocates fought to save the program with the Hands Off Safe Schools protest. 

Meanwhile, Greens MP Adam Brandt launched a crowdfunding campaign to provide rainbow flags for schools. In fact, Brandt went as far as to personally visit Fitzroy High School to give them a rainbow flag. This was considered a symbolic gesture of solidarity with LBTIQ kids. 

According to Education Review, “a future iteration of the program seems unlikely”. And as of November 2017, only 52 schools are members of the program.

A Hands Off Safe Schools protester with a yellow rain coat
(Credit: Getty)

Conclusion

Schools across Australia, from Victoria and NSW to Western Australia, employed the Safe Schools program’s teachings in order to create a better learning environment for LGBTI kids. However, criticism from conservatives and traditionally-minded politicians, as well as a moral panic regarding the supposed queering of children, contributed to the ceasing of government funding of a national program. 

The future of this well-meaning program remains uncertain. But hopefully, it gains traction again soon!

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