Support for Safe Schools is growing

Issue 

Support for Australia's Safe Schools program has been gathering pace since plans to gut the anti-bullying initiative and cut its funding were announced by the federal government in March.

Several councils have given it their backing, including City of Sydney, Leichhardt and Marrickville in Sydney and Moreland, Richmond and Yarra in Melbourne. Their support follows a grassroots campaign which has included rallies in Melbourne, Perth, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide.

Defend Safe Schools campaign groups have been established in New South Wales and Western Australia, home to state Liberal governments who are refusing to guard the program against the federal government's attack, unlike state Labor governments in Victoria and the ACT.

The Safe Schools program is a national coalition of organisations and schools that aims to create safe and inclusive schools for students, families and staff who are same-sex attracted, intersex and/or gender diverse.

The main focus of the organisation is to challenge bullying and discrimination within schools. The program began in Victoria in 2010 and started receiving federal funding of $8 million in 2013 before being formally launched across all states and territories except the Northern Territory in 2014.

But the Safe Schools program has been blasted by groups such as the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), which claim the initiative puts pressure on kids and confuses them about their identity. The ACL sent a petition to the Queensland parliament asking for it to be scrapped.

Coalition backbenchers George Christensen and Senator Cory Bernardi raised concerns over what they saw as the “sexualised” nature of the program. Christensen even likened it to a “paedophile grooming a victim”. They questioned what they saw as “queer gender theory” and “Marxist ideology”.

There were also claims the program encourages students to bind their chests or “cross dress”, which is denied by the program's defenders in the Victorian government. The focus is on encouraging tolerance and understanding, say Safe Schools' many supporters.

A government-commissioned independent review of the Safe Schools program was completed in March by University of Western Australia Emeritus Professor Bill Louden. He described the program as being consistent with the goals of the national curriculum, but made a few recommendations that led to the government essentially gutting Safe Schools. These included limiting the program to secondary schools only, limiting the materials used and calling for schools to seek parental permission for student participation.

The Coalition was divided on the issue, with 43 backbenchers including former-Prime Minister Tony Abbott signing a petition calling for the program's closure, while others, including former education minister Christopher Pyne, said it should stay.

Following the review, education minister Simon Birmingham announced the federal government would stop funding the program from 2017. Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews pledged that his government will continue to fund it. It also has the support of the ACT Labor government led by out gay chief minister Andrew Barr. Meanwhile, NSW Liberal Premier Mike Baird has backed the federal government's gutting of the program and described some of its material as “inappropriate”.

Since then, many more schools have signed up as members of the Safe Schools Coalition and grassroots activists have continued to campaign at a national, state and local level. In NSW a petition has been launched and community forums have been held.

Many state capitals have already staged large rallies, with an estimated 2000 people attending a rally in Melbourne in March. Many supporters and groups have lobbied local councils and all council motions have been successful so far.

The motion to Marrickville Council in Sydney was perhaps the most concrete and included six points:

1. Pledges its support for the Safe Schools Program;
2. Authorises the mayor or general manager to sign the Safe Schools pledge on behalf of the council;
3. Writes to local schools notifying them of the council's support for the program;
4. Council writes to the federal government requesting that it:
i. reinstate the Safe Schools program in its original form;
ii. makes support for anti-bullying gender diversity, intersex and sexual diversity awareness programs a requirement for all schools;
5. Writes to the state government requesting that it follow the example of the Victorian government and, in the event that the federal government refuses to reinstate Safe Schools, funds the shortfall and enables the rollout of Safe Schools in NSW;
6. Promotes its support of Safe Schools through its website and buildings used by local students and parents, including council libraries.

Activists Patrick Wright and Evan Gray and teacher John Gauci spoke at the meeting with only one Marrickville councillor voting against the motion.

Yarra Council in Melbourne unanimously passed a motion calling on the federal government to end its attacks on the Safe Schools program and for its expansion into as many schools as possible. It also backed the public rally in Melbourne and planned to lobby the federal government on the matter.

With the federal election in early July and a plebiscite on marriage equality proposed by the government next year, LGBTIQ issues are under intense scrutiny.

Parties backing the restoration of the program include Socialist Alliance, Labor and the Greens. They also support marriage equality, with Labor promising to bring in marriage equality within 100 days of a Bill Shorten Labor government.

[This article was first published on SameSame.com.au]

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