Explainer: what is Safe Schools Coalition?

The Safe Schools Coalition aims to help students deal with a broad range of sexual identities. Shutterstock

Recently, Safe Schools Coalition has been accused of “promoting a radical view of gender and sexuality”, and foisting it on schools through “indoctrination”, “enforcement”, and “induction”.

So what is Safe Schools Coalition? And is it indoctrinating students?

What is it?

Safe Schools Coalition describes itself as:

… a national coalition of organisations and schools working together to create safe and inclusive school environments for same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse students, staff and families.

National funding for the work comes from the Department of Education. The Victorian government has funded Safe Schools Coalition Victoria with a commitment to work with every state secondary school by 2019. These groups’ work is based on extensive empirical research about schools as sites of bullying and harassment for same-sex attracted, trans and gender diverse young people.

There are similar whole-school initiatives, including for primary schools, in the UK and elsewhere.

Why is it needed?

A key premise for safe schools is that LGBTIQ students exist. At least 10% of young people are same-sex attracted. At least 4% of young people are transgender or gender diverse:

… an umbrella term including transsexual and transgender, used to describe a broad range of non-conforming gender identities and expressions.

At least 1.7% of people are intersex – that is:

… born with physical sex characteristics that don’t fit medical norms for female or male bodies.

LGBTIQ identities are becoming more visible and diverse, and young people are using and inventing a range of ways to identify and talk about it. However, schools are still very unsafe environments for young people who are same-sex attracted or gender diverse, and students still express reluctance to express their sexual and gender identities. Research found that:

  • 61% of same-sex attracted or gender diverse young people in Australia have experienced verbal abuse;

  • 18% of same-sex attracted or gender diverse young people in Australia have experienced physical abuse; and

  • 80% of these homophobic and transphobic incidents take place in schools.

Research has found that school-based inclusion or anti-bullying policies can have a direct impact on same sex attracted students’ health and well-being. The Victorian Department of Education encourages schools to take a proactive approach to complying with the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act, stating in 2008:

We must be proactive in ensuring that our schools are free of homophobia and are safe, affirming environments for all students, not just those who ask for support.

Are schools being pressured?

There is no evidence to indicate schools are “pressured” to work with Safe Schools Coalition, or to use specific resources. A key aspect of Safe Schools Coalition is that its model is based on the voluntary membership of schools and is instigated by schools themselves, almost always led by staff or students.

Safe Schools is a capacity-building organisation, in that it provides facilitation to school staff and students to lead their own initiatives. It is not a student training service. Its most popular service at this stage is whole staff professional learning at the request of schools. To date, more than 13,000 school staff around Australia have taken part in training delivered by the coalition.

An emerging area of need in schools is support for transgender and gender diverse students who want to affirm their gender identities, a concern with which schools or young people often approach the coalition. Safe Schools Coalition Victoria alone has supported more than 50 schools to make sure transgender and gender diverse students can be themselves at school.

Are students being indoctrinated?

There is also little evidence to suggest Safe Schools Coalition is “indoctrinating” students.

According to Safe Schools Victoria staffer Joel Radcliffe, it never runs awareness-raising for students themselves and has contact with students only in a facilitation capacity when approached by them or the school. For example, if students establish a queer-straight alliance, Safe Schools may hold a discussion with, and provide resources to, interested students and staff to assist them. These resources are available on the Safe Schools website.

There has also been concern about exposing students to a variety of identities that could confuse them, for example by using the term “pansexual”. One of the few content-based guides that Safe Schools supplies specifically for the students, OMG I’m Queer does indeed list the term “pansexual” in the “new words” glossary at the back.

Notably, however, the resource consists almost entirely of the voices of students and young people who wrote about their own identities for the resource. The glossary of terms is led by their use of terms, and terms like pansexual are commonly used by young people in their daily lives.

Finally, concerns have also been raised about the age-appropriateness of the materials, given that they sometimes pertain to sexual orientation. It is established that young people are sexually active with or without sex education. In a 2008 survey of year 10-12 students, “most students (70% of Year 10 and 88% of Year 12) had experienced some form of sexual activity”.

There was no national data for lower years. Given this, and that most students receive sex education in years 7 and 8, the teaching resource All of Us, intended for years 7/8, coincides with the period designated most appropriate for this type of health education for young people.

This is also supported by evidence that sexual identity is often known fairly early in life. In a survey by Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria, 25.9% of gay men and 24.4% of lesbians aged 16 to 24 years reported “that they always knew they were same-sex attracted”.