LGBTI movement concerned about government taking over safer schools program

1 January 2016 - The LGBTI movement of the Australian State Victoria have raised concerns over the state government’s recent decision to take over the Safe Schools program and critically review it. The concern is based on serious grounds because under political pressure to get rid of the positive content about LGBTI issues, the government has been very critical of the program this year.

The La Trobe Safer Schools program

The Safer Schools program has been launched in 2013 on the initiative of the progressive La Trobe University under the guidance of Roz Ward. It is further developed and implemented by a wide coalition of organization under the umbrella of the "safer schools coalition" and it has been largely funded by the Victorian government. Part of the program is implemented by the organization taking part in the coalition, LGBTI organizations among them. The Safe Schools program is a broad anti-bullying program. But unlike other generic anti-bullying programs, it has a lot of attention for sexuality and LGBTI issues. This follows from research that a lot of bullying is related to sexualized identities. The program has been immensely successful. More than 60 per cent of Victorian public schools have signed up to the anti-bullying and LGBTI discrimination program.

Criticisms and review

Australian politics have been polarized for some time now about the proposal for same-sex marriage, which is heavily opposed by the conservative party and backed up by a UK-like scandal press. Conservative politicians saw an opportunity to whip up the negative voices by labeling the Safer School program as a one-sided "social engineering program". The impression of the right wing press is that "Marxists" like Roz Ward are trying to brainwash children with opinions that are not their own. Roz Ward was forced to resign from her advisory position to the government after a critical Facebook post.
In February 2016, the parliament forced the by then ambiguous government to order an independent review. This was done by professor William Louden of the University of Western Australia. While the report was being made, the (conservative) government swung sides to the conservative party criticism, apparently to safe their base.
However, the Louden report was enthusiastic about the program. It said the four official guides were appropriate and the main resource, “All of Us”, was “suitable, robust, age-appropriate, educationally sound and aligned with the Australian curriculum”. Professor Louden recommended additional parental guidelines be produced, including specific guidance for the parents of LGBTI children.
Still, Education Minister Birmingham announced he wanted to remove some activities from the program. Specifically, he wanted to remove role-playing. Although role-playing is generally know to be a very effective method for discussing attitudes and training pro-social behavior, Professor Louden had suggested it "might not be suitable for some students". The minister also wanted the program to remove third-party branding and links to external sites, such as Minus 18, which contains information on gender transitioning. Echoing the scandal press, the Minister has demanded that program managers do not engage in “political advocacy” or bring the program into “disrepute”.

Fears of downgrading the program after government taking over

In December the new Education Minister James Merlino stated that Safe Schools saved lives. “Bringing it into the Department of Education means LGBTI students in government schools will be better supported,” he said. “Broadening our reference group to include student, parent, and principal representatives, anti-bullying and education experts will further strengthen the program as it is expanded into government secondary schools.” He says the program will be expended to include all secondary schools and get permanent funding.
But the LGBTI community fears that the take-over of the government will not benefit the quality of the program. On the contrary, fears are that the current experienced staff of the Safer Schools Coalition will lose their jobs and will be replaced by bureaucrats who are acting on political guidelines by conservative forces. It may lead to the eradication of attention to sexuality and LGBTI issues or al least to heteronormalizing the program.
The LGBTI Officer of the National Union of Students US Chris di Pasquale said: "This government says it’s progressive, that it stands with LGBTI kids, and that it stands against bigotry. But it’s caved into right-wing pressure from The Australian and the far right of the Liberal Party. The government threw Safe Schools under the bus and the LGBTI kids it claims to care about along with it."

Peter Dankmeijer

Sources: Star Observer, The Saturday Paper, The Guardian