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Why the Safe Schools program matters

Liberal senator Cory Bernadi has sparked a national debate by suggesting the $8 million Safe Schools Coalition program should be defunded, saying that it could ‘indoctrinate children into a Marxist agenda of cultural relativism.’

The program gives teachers resources to support sexual diversity in schools. According to the website, ‘Thousands of young people across Australia experience homophobic and transphobic behaviour, discrimination and isolation in schools. These experiences have serious consequences for their health and wellbeing.’

Safe Schools is considered to be an important and successful initiative. Since it launched in 2014, approximately 500 schools have joined the program and more than 15 000 teachers have participated in the training, enabling them to assist lesbian, gay, bisexual, intersex and transgender students (LGBIT).

An independent review, due to be conducted by mid-March, will inform Education Minister Simon Birmingham on the suitability of the program’s material and resources.

Dr Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli, a senior lecturer in Deakin University’s Faculty of Health and Social Development, has studied sexual health and diversity for more than 20 years. ‘There is still such a denial of the need for this work,’ she says. ‘Students know how to use homophobic and transphobic put-downs. They need to learn appropriate language, safety and respect in relationships at age-appropriate levels.’

Dr Pallotta-Chiarolli is a member of the Australian Multicultural GLBTIQ Council and argues that adults who create ‘moral panic’ are undoing good work. ‘The illusion of this construct of innocence is not dealing with reality – we’re living in an age where information is everywhere. Students can cut out the adult sensor and the gatekeeper.’

Gay 28-year-old, Daniel Azzopardi, says the Safe Schools program could have made a huge difference during his secondary school years. At the time he was in the process of understanding his sexuality. Although he hadn’t labelled it, he knew he was different and found himself in a ‘dark place’. ‘I was bullied relentlessly. I would come home from school distraught,’ he recalls.

Azzopardi’s parents were helpless. They suggested a new school, but Azzopardi suspected he’d face social battles no matter where he was enrolled. ‘Safe Schools takes the pressure off students, ensures they’re getting a better chance at a healthier school life, and that their wellbeing remains in-tact,’ he says.

Dr Pallotta-Chiarolli agrees and calls for a program that helps children as young as primary-school age to learn inclusive behaviour. In her experience, adults conducing obstructive campaigns are ill-informed. ‘It’s incredibly important to work against discrimination and bullying from other children and adults.’

Find a range of LGBIT support services and information at ReachOut.

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Dr Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli
Dr Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli

Senior Lecturer, School of Health and Social Development, Deakin University
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