Safe Schools is starting here

May 08, 2017

Kildonan UnitingCare community development worker Damien Stevens said the program was proving effective in supporting diverse, and otherwise at-risk, students.

THE controversial Safe Schools program is set to be rolled out in classrooms at Echuca high schools from the end of next year.

But fierce debate in the Echuca region continues to surround the appropriateness of the program.

Its main objective is to tackle bullying and reduce feelings of isolation among LGBTI students, but concerns have long been raised about teachers discussing topics such as gender diversity, sexual diversity and intersex with their students.

The NSW Government recently announced it was dumping the program from its curriculum, and the Liberal-Nationals Coalition in Victoria plans to do the same if it is elected to power in November next year.

But a Shepparton-based diversity worker responsible for helping LGBTI youths at risk of poor emotional and psychological health fears the fallout if the program is no longer available in schools.

Kildonan UnitingCare community development worker Damien Stevens said the program was proving effective in supporting diverse, and otherwise at-risk, students.

‘‘In almost every Safe School in our region, we have at least one transgender or gender-diverse student who is well-supported, and we have hundreds of lesbian, gay and bi students who are feeling the same way,’’ he said.

‘‘It’s especially important in a regional and rural area that is the case, because attitudes tend to be a little less progressive than CBD counterparts down the road in Melbourne.’’

The Victorian Government has committed to expand the program to all public secondary schools by the end of next year.

As it stands, signing up to the program is optional.

But the latest records show no schools in the Echuca region have registered.

That will remain the case if Murray Plains MP Peter Walsh and the Victorian Opposition get their way.

Mr Walsh circulated a petition from his office last year inviting parents to voice their opposition to the program, which he said drew a strong response.

‘‘Our issue with the program is it’s not so much about anti-bullying and anti-violence as it is very much a social agenda around sexuality,’’ he said.

‘‘It’s about radical sexuality and gender theory programs in kindergartens and schools. We oppose that.

‘‘The place for those things to be talked about is with parental control, not the teachers’ control.’’

But Mr Stevens said the topics covered in the program were appropriate for students.

‘‘If you have a look at the content, there is nothing — certainly in my opinion as a diversity project worker — that I deem radical,’’ he said.

‘‘In fact, I think in the last 30-40 years, we’ve really struggled to provide previous generations with a well-planned, honest and good sexuality education.

‘‘I think what some people may be seeing as radical is actually a very inclusive, very affirming, well-researched and well-developed suite of resources that supports an inclusive sexuality education for young people in schools today.’’

Yet, even if the program is shut down, Mr Stevens said he was confident a valuable legacy would be left behind.

‘‘I’m proud to say we have so many principals in leadership positions, so many welfare staff and school nurses who absolutely will not compromise on the wellbeing and safety of all students,’’ he said.

‘‘Even if it was to disappear, there are champions and good leadership across our region that means our young people would still be safe.’’

The Victorian Opposition plans to replace Safe Schools with a broader anti-bullying program if it is elected.

Mr Walsh said LGBTI students would still be supported under the new program.

‘‘Having an anti-bullying program would deal with those issues (discrimination and isolation) as well as any other forms of bullying in the school,’’ he said.

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