The Problem with the Safe Schools Coalition

20160303-safe schools coalition-img-lgeAs many of you would already be aware, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has called for a review of the controversial Safe Schools Coalition program, a program used by approx. 5% of Australian schools. This independent review will be conducted by Emeritus Professor Bill Louden (University of Western Australia). While some politicians and media commentators have suggested that the decision for a review was driven by the ‘extreme right’ of the Federal Coalition, nothing could be further from the truth.

Firstly, as a government-funded program, such reviews are not out of the ordinary, rather they are commonplace. Often such reviews assess the effectiveness and sustainability of programs, or the ongoing relevance of a program’s core purposes. Reviews can also identify areas of overlap and duplication between programs.

Secondly, concerns about the Safe School Coalition have not been restricted to the ‘conservative wing of the coalition parties’. Rather, they have been voiced by a broad cross-section of politicians, community leaders, representatives of faith-based schools, parents and citizens groups, and members of the general public.

Catholic schools throughout Australia have raised significant concerns with the nature and content and nature of the Safe Schools Coalition program. Not surprisingly, only two schools from Australia’s 1728 Catholic schools are affiliated with the program.

Catholic schools abhor all forms of discrimination, whether that is on the basis of culture, religion, gender, race or sexual orientation. We respect the inherent dignity of every person and work to ensure that all people are valued and treated with respect. We do everything we can to protect the safety and well-being of our students, and we are acutely aware of the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized.

While the Safe Schools Coalition program is promoted as an anti-bullying program, its materials have a very narrow focus and many of the suggested activities are totally unsuitable for school-aged children. Many of the program’s materials are at odds with the Church’s teachings on, and our understanding of, the human person. Our humanness extends well beyond our sexuality. Catholic schools do not promote the unhealthy sexualisation of young people. Rather, our teachings on sexuality are underpinned by our understanding of the human person, the inherent dignity of each of us, and the love and mutual respect that should characterise our relationships.

While the concerns regarding the Safe Schools Coalition are well documented and well publicised, we should also be mindful of ‘lesser-known’ programs which make reference to similar strategies and content. One such program is The Practical Guide to Love, Sex and Relationships (LSR) involving The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS), La Trobe University. This program has materials which are inconsistent with Church teachings.

Importantly, the Safe Schools Coalition Australia should not be confused with the National Safe Schools Framework. Established by the Commonwealth Government in 2003, the NSSF provides Australian schools with a set of guiding principles to develop policies for positive and practical student safety and wellbeing. In recent years the framework has given particular attention to gender and sexuality.

Another particularly valuable resource for schools is The Safe Schools Hub – http://safeschoolshub.edu.au – which provides a range of anti-bullying resources and strategies to teachers, parents and students.

Unlike the Safe Schools Coalition, the National Safe Schools Framework and the Safe Schools Hub have addressed issues of discrimination and bullying in a prudent and pro-active manner, using a range age appropriate and culturally sensitive resources. These highly effective approaches do bring into question the need for ‘Safe Schools Coalition, Australia’, especially in its current form.

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