You’ve heard all the rumours.
‘It’s teaching kids how to use sex toys! It’s sexualising pre-teens! My son will have to wear a dress!’
So what’s the truth about Safe Schools? What is it? How does it work? And will it actually make a difference?
Benjamin Law is one person who was determined to get to the bottom of these questions. He recently embarked on an investigation into Safe Schools for the Quarterly Essay. His essay Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal delved into the media frenzy and separated the issues into fact and fiction.
Listen: Benjamin Law talks about the Safe Schools controversy on the latest episode of This Glorious Mess.
During an interview on This Glorious Mess, Mamamia’s podcast about family life, Law told hosts Holly Wainwright and Ben Fordham what he really thinks of Safe Schools and whether we need it.
Spoiler: we do.
As a queer kid growing up in Queensland in the 80s, Law can see how the Safe Schools program could have helped confused kids like him.
“When I think about myself growing up and how lonely I felt in those years and how being gay was really the worst thing in the schoolyard, I would have really valued it,” he said.
“At 35, I am part of a generation that grew up almost pre-internet… I remember having to read about homosexuality in the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s H volume. That makes me sound like a dinosaur!”
So without further ado… Here are the facts.
What is Safe Schools?
After diving deep into the program and resulting media coverage over the past three years, Benjamin Law says he can certainly understand why it’s called the ‘controversial’ Safe Schools program. 99 per cent of people don’t actually understand what it is.
The overwhelming belief is that Safe Schools is a part of the curriculum, where all kids are taught lessons on issues surrounding the LGBTQI community. But the truth is, the program does not spill into the curriculum at all.
“All that Safe Schools is, is a resource made available to principals and teachers on how to keep LGBTQI kids safe in the schoolyard,” Law says.
“And all that’s mandatory of the schools that sign up to Safe Schools is simply signing a pledge that says ‘we as a school community vow to keep lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and questioning kids safe from homophobia.'”
That’s it. Plain and simple. And certainly no lessons on using sex toys!
Does my school have it?
At the end of 2015 amidst controversy on the issue, the federal government ceased funding of the program. Now, the program is opt-in and the only state making a commitment to Safe Schools is Victoria.
“By the end of 2018 if your kid goes to a public school in Victoria they will be in a safe school,” Law says.
However, this does not mean that other schools cannot pledge to keep their students safe. The program’s website has a list of all the schools that have signed up as members. The list includes schools in Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory, and Government, Independent and Catholic school are all represented.
Why are some people against it?
“When it started it actually had bipartisan support,” the Sydney based writer says.
Way back in the beginning, all the politicians thought it was a fabulous idea. Until the facts got lost.
The media started sending unclear messages about what the program was, and parents were understandably bewildered. Suddenly everyone had the program confused with a sex-ed class. Which it wasn’t.
“I think when it comes to sexuality and gender a lot of parents still understandably feel anxious about that stuff. What are our kids being taught at school? And the idea that Safe Schools started teaching kids something was a narrative that really took hold in the media and it was a false narrative,” Law says.
The other prevailing argument, was that the aims of the program would be better achieved with an all-encompassing anti-bullying agenda.
“A lot of the criticism about Safe Schools is saying why should LGBTQI kids get their own resource or attention when there are so many different ways to be bullied, and I understand that argument,” Law says.
“Homophobia and transphobia doesn’t just affect LGBTQI kids. I think any of us that have gone to an Australian school know how homophobia and slurs like fag or poof are used to police all of us… Whether we’re man enough, whether we’re the right kind of girl.”
How will it actually help?
With all those misconceptions cleared up, you can see why a simple pledge to support LGBTQI kids and keep them safe in the schoolyard is an incredible positive thing.
Statistics show that roughly one in 11 kids in our schoolyards identify as LGBTQI, including those that are still questioning and in need of guidance. In addition, in a school of 100 students, the stats say there will be at least one transgender student.
“If you are a principal or teacher in charge of those kids, you need to know how to deal with that situation because it gets complicated fast,” Law points out.
“I think the problem sometimes is that teachers and principals don’t feel like they’re resourced enough or confident to address these issues head on. They know that parents are understandably and rightly so concerned about how sexuality and gender is talked about in the schoolyard. So if they see homophobic bullying, for instance, they might not pick it up at all, because they’re like ‘can I even talk about why homophobic bullying is wrong? Can I even refer to homosexuality at all?'”
And it’s that sort of confusion that the program would reduce. Because teachers and principals would have resources at their disposal to teach them how to handle such situations.
“[And that] would have changed my life a lot,” he says.
What about the lesson book I heard about?
Ah yes, that would be 'All Of Us.'
This resource was developed at the end of 2015 and is part of what got everyone confused.
"Principals and teachers started asking, 'if we want to have frank conversations about issues to do with gender or sexuality, how can we do that so we are doing it responsibly?'" Law says.
So All Of Us was created, "which goes through lessons that teachers can teach if they want to, about what being lesbian means, what being transgender means, how to be inclusive at school."
"And we got spooked by that resource."
But as Law stresses, it's not the same thing as Safe Schools. It's an optional PDF booklet created by experts as a teaching tool for Year 7 and 8 teachers. It's not even required to be used by schools that sign up to Safe Schools.
You can find Benjamin Law's essay Moral Panic 101 at apple.co/mamamia
Listen to the full episode here:
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