NICK Jensen’s opinion piece (“Parents lose power to the ‘rainbow ideology”, CN, March 2) on the Safe Schools Coalition revisits familiar concerns and issues raised nationally in the last year or more, but offers little for a Canberra reader about how the program is evolving and what its overall goals and approach are.
The Safe Schools Coalition program is delivered locally by Sexual Health and Family Planning ACT (SHFPACT). We have a long record of service provision and advocacy to meet the needs of same-sex-attracted, sex and gender-diverse Canberrans, and we’re proud of a long-standing commitment to gender equity in health, education and community services through training programs for professionals in these industries.
Late last year, the ACT government backed its public statements of support for the program with a financial commitment that will enable us to continue to meet the needs of our school communities. Federal government funding for the national program ends in June.
This is a challenging area of work, because we are dealing with the intersection of important human needs for safety, respect, care, support, and recognition. And how these needs intersect with our values and attitudes about relationships, sexuality and gender.
These are not marginal issues, they are central to our experience of being human and of being in a community.
Attacks on the program nationally and here in Canberra, including the fears Mr Jensen raises in his article, rely on emphasising some genuine concerns out of proportion to the real issues the program is attempting to address.
The genuine concerns relate to how we will live together in our community with others who don’t share our experiences, beliefs or morals, without resorting to discrimination and violence. And there are some serious attempts to critique how well the program materials and approach achieve their goals without creating other challenges.
The very real needs and risks our program is addressing include the reality that children and young people who are gender diverse and same-sex attracted (or will be at some point in their lives) are at higher serious risk for poorer mental health, self harm and suicide as a result of prejudice, discrimination and bullying, and the absence of appropriate supports.
School should be a welcoming, safe and inclusive place for all students, families and staff.
That many same-sex-attracted and gender-diverse children, young people and adults have identified school as one of the most unsafe places they experience does place a responsibility on all of us to mitigate and improve this situation.
There is no inconsistency with an anti-bullying goal and the program’s approach of making visible and celebrating difference. This is exactly how we positively approach addressing racism and cultural prejudice in our community. And there is no inconsistency in focusing attention on particular needs, while not losing sight of the overall goal of schools providing a positive environment for all.
We do expect to change the name of the program, but not for the reasons Mr Jensen speculates in his article.
In the longer term, our hope and goal is that as school communities and education professionals become more confident and skilled at addressing the needs of same-sex-attracted, intersex and gender-diverse students, families and staff, the need for these supports provided by an external agency will also change.
However, what we don’t expect to change is a commitment to support school communities to be places where both the challenges and benefits of embracing and accepting our differences are actively engaged; where diversity of sexuality, sex and gender is not a focus of prejudice, discrimination, harassment or bullying any more than diversity of ethnicity, culture, hair colour, weight or ability are.
The evolution of the Safe Schools Coalition work in the ACT will not ignore those other factors, but it is a response to the very specific, known risks and needs that face same-sex-attracted and gender-diverse young people in the school context. We also expect to find ways to make engagement with the program more accessible for a wide range of school communities.
The program supports will remain voluntary, schools will be in control of the degree and nature of their engagement and we will continue to encourage school leaders to communicate openly with their parent/carer community consistent with how they approach this for other important areas of school need and life.
Tim Bavinton is executive director of Sexual Health and Family Planning ACT (SHFPACT), a non-government, non-profit health promotion charity and lead agency for the Safe Schools Coalition work in Canberra.
More information at shfpact.org.au