Safe students, safer workplaces

Australian schools are failing all their students – not just those who identify as queer in some way.

From kindergarten to high school, the learning environment teaches us how to be social. Even cultural communities, large families or those connected to religion do not come close to the amount of time spent in school. Nor do they represent such a cross section of society in the way that schools do. For this reason, school is a huge factor in how we shape ourselves as people.

The difficulty then is that there are no federal laws about monitoring or combating bullying. Instead, Australia has varying state policies that go from Victoria’s suggestion that ‘A bullying prevention policy should be developed collaboratively with staff, students, parents or caregivers and the wider school community’ through to Queensland’s code of behaviour plans which are heavy in abstraction and light on tangible frameworks to assist with implementation.

Effectively, the definitions of what constitutes, say, ‘verbal abuse’, are left up to the school administration to decide. This means any broader guidelines are effectively impotent should the society and school be steeped in LGBTIQ-phobic mentalities.

This is particularly important when considering the large prevalence of Catholic schools. Of the 535 schools listed as being involved with the Safe Schools Coalition, only two are registered as Catholic schools. I imagine this is, in part, to do with the involvement of the Bishop of the Diocese and corresponding obligations to Catholic church doctrine which is both homophobic and transphobic.

More alarming still are the stories that I hear about Catholic authority figures in schools. Joel Turner, a cis straight man who went to Easter Creek Primary, told me that ‘a Catholic priest once told our year four Protestant scripture class that AIDS just “goes right through” condoms.’ Another person messaged me privately to tell me that in one of their school newsletters, the administration was campaigning against marriage equality – despite having at least seven gay teachers. This is where the strange juxtaposition of the sheltered school life clashes with the reality of life outside of school.

There are federal laws that protect the discrimination and bullying of LGBTIQ people. In the workplace, the Fair Work Act 2009 protects discrimination on the ground of ‘sexual orientation’, allowing complaints to be made to the Fair Work Ombudsman. The Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013 made discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people illegal for the first time on a national level.

These sorts of interventions and protections are a huge shift from the haphazard, patchwork nature of bullying policies in schools. It means that the children who are bullying others are drastically under-equipped to enter the workplace, let alone society at large. The work of the Safe Schools Coalition isn’t introducing radical measures; it is addressing and aligning school environments with measures already in place in the greater world.

While I am loath to shift the debate from the kids who are being victimised, I am more than aware in my own circle of friends that there is a fair proportion of people who identify as LGBTIQ in some way who perpetrated bullying with the intent of distancing themselves from their own desires and protecting themselves from the prospect of being victimised. Proactive structures that assist in identification of and intervention in problematic behavior disrupt the assumption that queer people will be bullied – a fatalistic mindset which is at the centre of a lot of perpetuation of abuse and very deeply affects the mental health of LGBTIQ people.

Being aware of my limited knowledge of the wider Australian school system, I made a call-out to see which schools my (largely queer-friendly, queer and trans friends) went to. I noticed a trend. Of 32 schools mentioned, the majority of schools that were remembered favourably were already signed up to the Safe Schools Coalition. Schools like Tintern Grammar School, which were repeatedly noted as being terrible environments, were absent on the list.

This highlights the only downside of Safe Schools – the fact that it is an opt-in service. School environments that are already inclined to be supportive are getting additional tools, but the schools and associated communities that are already dangerously oppressive are less likely to seek out ways in which to support LGBTIQ students.

This is further backed up by the statistics. The Victorian state government has announced it will fully support and fund Safe Schools in their work, even if it is axed federally. Victorian participation in Safe Schools comprises roughly half the numbers signed up to the initiative overall – just shy of twice the numbers in the next biggest state, New South Wales.

Meanwhile, students in areas that are less favourable to LGBTIQ students have less support in general. For a student to approach the school to push for them to participate in the Safe Schools program would be a project that could result in a student outing themselves, making themselves further vulnerable to discrimination from staff, students and the greater community.

There is difficulty, too in that in many areas – particularly rural areas – there is a lack of options for students and their parents when it comes to education. When I mentioned that I’d heard a lot of areas in Australia had an abundance of private Catholic high schools, Em Burney, a non-binary trans person who grew up in the Latrobe region, said ‘You’ve just summed up the Latrobe Valley pretty much … if you want to make it out of the Valley, you get enrolled in a private Catholic school, because state school education and certain towns around there swallow whole families.’

Not rolling out Safe Schools nationally means that students and their families will have to choose between quality of education and quality of environment. This is why areas like Greater Shepparton have collectively recognised the quality and importance of their queer people. All but one school in the region has signed on to the Safe Schools program. Because of this, Shepparton will develop into a more inclusive society as – especially in small communities – initiatives like this will affect everyone.

Ultimately, when conservatives like Cory Bernardi speak about those advocating for Safe Schools as ‘lefty totalitarians’ their fear is rooted in the fact that it’s initiatives like this – strong, concerted, proactive and effective initiatives – that will reduce the prevalence of homo, bi, trans and intersex phobias in society as a whole. By putting in these measures early, they will be sowing seeds of compassion and understanding that have more chance to carry over into adulthood. By reducing dehumanisation of kids in the school yard, such kids will grow into better human beings who are more likely to assist in reducing the prevalence in homelessness, unemployment, police brutality, street harassment and murder of LGBTIQ people as adults.

This is why the work Safe Schools is doing is not just about helping LGBTIQ students survive high school. While it is doing that, with great effectiveness, it is also changing society in the long-term by disrupting childhood behaviour which eventually shapes adult society.

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Fury is a writer, activist, adventurer, poet, redhead, comedian, layabout, do-gooder, trouble maker who lives in Melbourne. Their dream date would be a long walk on the beach, virgin daiquiris and a light but thorough smashing of the patriarchy.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. It is potentially misleading to refer to the ‘protections’ of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 in the context of school-based discrimination. This is because that law, and the majority of state and territory laws, in fact make it legal for religious schools to discriminate against both LGBTI students and teachers (indeed, in NSW the school doesn’t even have to be religious, just private). These special rights under anti-discrimination laws also over-ride any protections under the Fair Work Act (as section 351 makes clear).

    1. Yes, absolutely. This is an important issue, given the high percentages of students at religious/independent schools, and the high number of staff who rely on them for employment. Given that religious organisations already have this capacity to discriminate, it is even more egregious that the ACL has had the audacity to mount an active campaign against Safe Schools (which largely services the government sector) and that the federal LNP has supported them.

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