Community outrage at Safe Schools Coalition changes

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Over two hundred people attended a snap action protest in central Perth last night to voice their alarm over the Turnbull government’s decision to alter the Safe Schools Coalition program.

Parents, school students, politicians and community members lined up to share their thoughts on the government’s announcement that the program would be dramatically altered, and funding would be cut at the end of 2017.

In a move that has widely been described as a capitulation to right wing conservatives in the Liberal Party, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ordered a review into the the program after backbenchers labeled it a ‘Marxist social engineering program’.

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Students share the positive effects of the Safe Schools Coalition

Oscar Kaspi-Crutchett, a 15 year old student at a Perth High School that runs the program, spoke about why he needed the program in his school.

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“As someone who lives and identifies as an LGBT Australian I can tell you all now, with great shame, that homophobia and transphobia still exists in our schools. Bullying inflicted on LGBT students in undeniably endemic across the country.” Kaspi-Crutchett said.

“For may students school is a battleground, social rejection, abuse, peer shunning and isolation, can turn life into a daily struggle. Needless mockery and unjust cruelty happens to so many people across the country.”

In an eloquent speech, the confident student shared that last week religious activists had visited his school and distributed flyers to students arguing that the Safe Schools Coalition program harmed students.

“Recently activists have come to my own school and harassed students and parents to take flyers that spread ridiculous fallacies about safe schools, saying it could adversely affect students and alter their sexuality and gender identity.” Kaspi-Crutchett said.

“Are these the kind of zealots that our government takes orders from?” asked the young student, “There’s an ocean of investigations, studies, surveys and accounts that remind us of how fragile the stability and safety of young LGBT people is in our schools. By gutting Safe Schools the government is endangering not only the safety, but the metal health and the very lives of children.”      

Watch a video of Oscar’s speech below.


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Rally organiser Farida Iqbal said the main concerns were the government’s decision to stop funding the successful program past 2017, a new requirement for parental permission for students to take part in the program, and that the program has been removed from primary schools.

Program assists transgender students

Patch Miller shared a personal account of how transgender youth benefit from good support programs. Sharing a personal experience Miller said more support was needed in schools, not less.

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“In 2014 I came out as transgender. I was in Year 10 and it was a very difficult time because I wasn’t allowed to use the change room of my choice, which lead to a lot of complications. I had a lot of supportive people around but some further education could have been really helpful so that I felt completely comfortable and able to learn at school.”

That same year Miller attended the 2014 Safe Schools Symposium, an experience which they said was an incredible experience as so many people were focussed on making schools better. Miller shared disappointment that the government has taken such drastic action in response to the review by UWA’s Professor Bill Louden.

“The review does not suggest that Turnbull government should strip the program of its well researched goodness and restrict its effectiveness within school communities. I can not stress how imperative it is for everyone to learn about sex, sexuality and gender diversity in supportive, understanding and respectful spaces – and not in a culture that portrays us to be deviant, unworthy and ‘asking for trouble’ in our lives.” Miller said.

Miller was critical of the government’s decision to deny primary schools the ability to access the program’s resources and the new requirement for students to gain parental permission to access many of the key resources.

“Queer-phobic parents who will not give permission for their children to take part in the program will teach their children either that it’s not okay to be queer, or that queer, trans and intersex people do not deserve to be understood.”

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MacLaren: Queer youth should not be forced to stay in the closet

Western Australian parliamentarian Lynn MacLaren praised the young people who spoke at the snap action rally describing them as “inspirational”.

“We are here to tell Malcolm Turnbull and his Liberal people that they will not stop Safe Schools in Western Australia.” The Greens MLC told the crowd.

MacLaren said older members of the community know that hiding your sexuality as a teenager can have life long effects.

“I went to school in the ’70s and there was a lot of people ‘in the closet’ back then. We grew up and we never found out identities.” MacLaren said.

“Some of us suicided [sic], some of us just didn’t do as well as we could have done, many of us lived lies, we lived lives that were not our true identity, because we didn’t have a school where we could be who we are.”

MacLaren highlighted that one of the biggest effect of the campaign against the program was a rush of schools wanting to sign up to the program.

“There are an additional 32 schools that have signed up since this controversy began, and there’s one school which has in fear withdrawn.” MacLaren said.

“There are five hundred schools and something like 13,000 educators who have gone through this program already.”

MacLaren said the investment in training teachers would continue to show results regardless of the governments attempts to scale back the program. “Those teachers now know what its like to have diverse and inclusive policies in schools.” MacLaren said.

MacLaren said that restricting information about sexuality and gender from one section of the student population was simple discrimination.

The Greens MP said if the federal government was going to withdraw funding for the program the state government should commit to supporting the program and include provisions for it in the state budget, and Western Australia’s Education Minister Peter Collier should get behind the program.

Teachers say the program is a success

School teachers also took to the stage to argue the program is vitally needed in Western Australian schools. Jesse Williams and Stan Schirmer said the program has wide reaching positive effects, and even improved the workplace for education professionals.

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“This program is not only about targeting our queer youth,” Williams said, “It’s promoting acceptance and diversity across the board.”

Williams said it was important that teachers developed a better understanding of sexuality and gender so that students could reach their full potential.

“Its our jobs as teachers to guide students through school and prepare them for their lives after school. The harsh reality is that for a lot of queer people it can be a pretty sad reality out there, there are a lot of upsetting statistics and we want to change that.”

Williams said that the federal government needed to show more respect to LGBTIQ+ people and politicians needed to rid themselves of archaic notions and petty fears that had no validity.

“You need to respect us… you need to respect that we are, who we are, it’s not a choice – it’s a fact. You need to respect that students are going to school in anxiety everyday and you need to respect the fact that some student’s don’t have supportive parents. So they can’t ask ‘Can I join this program?’.

Secondary teacher Stan Schirmer said the government’s decision to change the program last week was particularly disappointing for Western Australian teachers, who had only been able to access the program for one school term.

“As teachers we’ve been wanting the Safe Schools Coalition program in our schools, but it’s only this year that teachers have access to the professional development and resources that allows us to teach the program.” Schirmer said, “Now they say they’re going to remove the funding – well that’s not good enough.”

Schirmer said the program was not just for LGBTIQ+ students, but for all students as straight students are often also the victims of homophobic and transphobic bullying.

‘My own daughter cut her hair short and she got all kinds of harassment. if you’re a girl in school and you cut your hair short, they’ll accuse you of being gay, they’ll say you’re trans. Whether you are or not.”

“I’ve had boys in my classes who have wanted to learn, who wanted to sit in class and listen and learn – and because they’ve wanted to do that they were tagged as ‘gay’. Those boys and girls, whether they’re LGBTIQ or not, they deserve to be safe in school and that’s what this program is for.’ Schirmer said.

Parents dismayed that program will be banned from primary education

Melissa Scarr, a mother of an eleven year old transgender son, said the Safe Schools program had been a great success in assisting her child, his siblings, and their whole primary school be understanding and supportive.

Ms Scarr said the statistics on the level of suicide among transgender youth filled her family with horror and she was dismayed that the successful program that had helped her son Jacob and her whole family would no longer be available.

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“Jacob’s transition was so well received thanks to the support and guidance of the Safe School’s Coaltion’ Ms Scarr said. “We know that not all children are this lucky. Seventy five percent of LGBTIQ students experience bullying, eighty one percent of trans youth contemplate suicide. That statistic terrifies us.”

Ms Scarr said the program had been a great comfort to her family but since the government announced that changes to the program both Jacob and his brother, who attends the same school, are extremely nervous about what the future holds. Ms Scarr said the program was desperately needed by her family.

“Its about the rights of young people and their need to be able to express who they are openly and safely in their schools, to reach their full potential without fear or judgement.” Ms Scarr said.

Respected transgender rights advocate Robyn Edwards (pictured below) also argued that there was a clear need for diversity and anti-bullying programs in primary schools, sharing that her own education experience had included what she described as “years of abuse, years of violence and years of assault.”

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“I started primary school and a grade Two student on the first day walked up to me and punched me to the ground.” Edwards said, “I didn’t know I was different – but everyone else did.

Edwards said she spent her high school years hiding out in the library to avoid school yard bullies, and her fellow students occupying the library at lunch times were all from the LGBTIQ camp.

“Bullying starts right from the beginning of primary school, bullying might even start in kindergarten. We need to teach people that bullying of any sort, whether it’s because of them being LGBTIQ, or because they wear glasses, or because of their religion, we need to teach people not to be bullies.” Edwards said.

Louise Pratt: the program was created because parents wanted it

Labor’s Louise Pratt, who was a member of the Rudd and Gillard governments that set up the program, told the crowd that the program was created because parents wanted it.

Pratt, who is a senate candidate at the upcoming federal election, said the governments changes to the program were horrifying and said it was clear that the right wing of the government was in charge.

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“I met with parent after parent of transgender young people who were struggling to inclusion for children in their schools, including in our primary schools.” Pratt said.

“This is why Labor funded the program, and its why we are committed to it. When you talk about the gutting of this program, as George Christensen has, what is perhaps most horrifying is not only its  exclusion out of our primary schools, it’s not only that changes that they are making to it, but it was confirmed that there is no intention from the current government to fund it past 2017.”

Pratt was critical of Education Minister Simon Birmingham and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s capitulation to right win backbenchers in the coalition.

“He [Birmingham] and Malolm Turnbull are held to ransom by the right within their own party who will do anything ,as we have seen, on their obsession about stopping marriage equality, their obsession about stopping action on climate change. We have a government that is held to ransom by the right of the party.” Pratt said.

Broadcaster Paul van Lieshout shares that bullying lead to him becoming a drop-out

Community radio broadcaster and former Pride WA co-president Paul van Lieshout spoke at the rally and shared that bullying in High School lead to his decision to drop out.

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The host of RTRFM’s ‘Morning Magazine’ current affairs program said it was harrowing that while LGBTIQ youth were six times more likely to attempt suicide the government was “pulling the guts out of a life saving program.”

“When I was young, maybe 15 or 16 I came out as gay. It was one of the most truly terrifying experiences of my life.” van Lieshout said.

“It wasn’t easy, but it would have been a hell of a lot easier if I had the support of my school behind me.”

“I remember having horrible thoughts. Wondering if I was wrong. Wondering if I was ill. Wondering if I was a weird abnormality. Wondering if I was going to go to hell. No one else in my year had come out as having a diverse sexuality or gender, I was the first, many more came out later.”

“I remember walking in to see the Chaplain to ask why homosexuality was so wrong, and the Chaplain – the only support we had in my school, he looked at me, rather uncomfortably, before avoiding the question. That should not happen to children.”

The broadcaster said that he eventually found great support at The Freedom Centre, Perth’s LGBTIQ+ youth support group. Van Lieshout said the centre had been a life-saver.

“At school I was bullied… because of my sexuality I became a target, I remember classmates gathering around in a circle, not long I’d come out, and pushing and shoving me and calling me a fagot. I remember another boy taking my hat and throwing it into a urinal and telling me to ‘go and fetch it’, and this to was followed by homophobic name calling,”

Van Lieshout said that not longer after he dropped out of high school and ended up in hospital after attempting self-harm.

Delivering an impassioned speech Van Lieshout said it was unacceptable for any more children to be subjected to bullying because of their sexuality while the government failed to take action.


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Queer youth share their personal stories of bullying

During the rally many young LGBTIQ+ people took to the stage to share their personal experiences of bullying outlining how it had a profound effect on their education and mental health.

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A young trans guy shared that the first time he learned about gender transition was when classmates were looking at Japanese comics, but the classmates looked at the comics spouting homophobic slurs like ‘fagot’.

“It just made me immediately feel that it was wrong.” Remy said. “At the same time I thought but maybe this is me, so I went through the next two years of school wanting to die every time I went to school…. Every time I walked into a classroom and people saw a girl on the outside I just wanted to die. but I couldn’t tell anyone.”

“It just makes me ache that a new generation of queer youth will have to go through the same thing as I went through, and I know some of them won’t make it.’

Twenty year old Lexi said high school would have been a lot easier if a program like the Safe Schools Coalition had been in place.

“I have to put up with being constantly mis-gendered because people don’t get the education that they need.” Lexi said. “We need Safe Schools so we can learn about ourselves, but also so that the people around us can learn about us, how to respect us, how to accommodate us, so that rather than be seen as a sub-species, we can be treated like reasonable people.”

Nineteen year old Zac said that coming out had been a terrifying experience, Zac’s parents didn’t take the news well, kicking their child out of the home. At sixteen Zac was homeless.

“My Mum and Dad didn’t know anything about sexuality or gender diversity. When I came out they had no way of dealing with it, or helping me.”

“Growing up i was constantly bullied, not because I was a lesbian, or transgender but because I was a just a little bit weird and awkward.” Zac shared.

The teenager shared that since coming out there had been challenges with homelessness and self harm.

“The government needs to wake up and realise that this can not keep happening to our youth. Students, teachers and parents, everyone should be educated on this basic thing, the sexuality and gender of people.”

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Sixteen year old PJ, who identified as a pan-sexual gender fluid person, said the program was important.

“It’s programs like this that protect me and protect my friends while we deal with bullying based on our gender identities and sexuality.” PJ said.

The Year 12 student said it was frustrating to hear politicians argue that the program was not appropriate for school aged children to be exposed to things like this.

“I’m a school aged child, and I am this, and I am not inappropriate.” PJ proudly declared. “Queer kids who are eleven or five or six years old are not ‘inappropriate’, and their bodies and identities should not be censored.”

“Bullying of queer students is not over. I’ve experienced it many times. I’ve been picked on, I’ve been called names, I’ve been pushed and shoved.” PJ said. “We need the Safe Schools Coalition to protect young people.”

Alongside the rally in Perth there were also protests in Melbourne and Brisbane. Further rallies have been announced for Sydney, Geelong and Adelaide on Wednesday, while residents in Ballarat will voice their concerns on March 2nd.       

Graeme Watson

Update: 24-03-16 YouTube video of Oscar’s speech added. 

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