In the past year Australia has witnessed an explosion of negative media directed at Safe Schools Coalition.
Despite efforts to discredit the research-base on which the program was founded, the evidence has been crucial in defending the program against these attacks.
The research journey began in 1995 when the Federal Government commissioned the Centre for the Study of Sexually Transmitted Diseases at La Trobe University to conduct a four-year national research program, the National Centre in HIV Social Research (NCHSR), on adolescent sexual risk-taking and wellbeing. This was in response to the HIV pandemic. Its purpose was to find out what marginalised young people needed to do to keep their sexual lives safe and what factors were contributing to risky behaviours.
Young people were asked to nominate which of four options best described their sexual feelings: I am attracted to:
• the opposite sex only
• both sexes
• same sex only
• I am unsure
A considerable minority of young people – 11 per cent of rural, 14 per cent of homeless (based on behaviour, not attraction) and 9 per cent in the schools’ study – did not tick the ‘opposite sex only’ box. These findings were considered robust because they were consistent across studies and because young people were taking a risk by documenting that they were part of a stigmatised minority. Indeed, in some places at this time, homosexuality was still illegal.
There have now been three research studies, six years apart, on the sexual health and wellbeing of same sex attracted youth, and their findings have been remarkably consistent (Hillier et al, 1998). Called the 'Writing Themselves In' projects, participant numbers have increased significantly with each iteration, from 749 in 1998 to 1,749 in 2004 and 3,400 in 2010. More than 5,000 same sex attracted young people have now added their experiences to the knowledge base. Each study has included the same core items regarding sexual feelings, experiences of homophobia, and questions about safety and wellbeing.
Some of the findings are highly relevant to Safe Schools Coalition. The first is that high numbers of young people experience abuse, both verbal (46 per cent in 1998; 44 per cent in 2004; and 61 per cent in 2010) and physical (13 per cent in 1998; 15 per cent in 2004; and 18 per cent in 2010), because of their sexuality. Verbal abuse can take many forms, often as a series of insults, threats and name calling. Physical abuse often leads to hospitalisation.
The second finding is that school is the most likely place of abuse. Of those abused, 69 per cent in 1998, 74 per cent in 2004, and 80 per cent in 2010 reported being abused at school. School was by far the most dangerous place for these young people to be, compared to home, the street, or sport and social occasions.
Importantly for Safe Schools Coalition, in 2010, the research included items about school climate. The researchers found that young people who attended schools where they felt safe and supported experienced far less abuse and were half as likely to attempt suicide as those in non-supportive schools. A supportive school had protective policies and acted on them. Sadly, in 2010, only 19 per cent of these young people felt that their school was supportive of their sexuality (Hillier et al, 2010; Jones and Hillier, 2012).
The research at La Trobe provided a clear basis for further work with schools to prevent homophobia and transphobia, as well as supporting schools to create more actively inclusive environments - the dual focus of Safe Schools Coalition today, which works with over 550 schools across Australia.
In February 2016, the Federal Government commissioned an independent review of Safe Schools Coalition Australia under pressure from the Australian Christian Lobby and figures from the right of the Liberal Party. Professor Louden (U of Western Australia) conducted the review and found that the content of the program was age-appropriate and correctly linked to the Australian curriculum, recommending only minor changes. Despite this, the government recommended sweeping changes to the content of the resources and methods of delivery in schools. The Victorian government rejected those changes and decided to fund the program to continue in its original form.
Despite the completion of the review, the media and political interest in Safe Schools Coalition, particularly from the Australian and the Murdoch Press continued to be intense throughout 2016. In particular, I became a target of a series of personal and political attacks. At the end of 2016, the Victorian government announced that they had decided to terminate their funding agreement with La Trobe University in order to bring Safe Schools Coalition into the Department of Education.
On 16 December 2016, after the Victorian government took it over, the VC said, “[w]hile we are disappointed that La Trobe will no longer be delivering the program, we welcome the Government’s expansion of the Safe Schools program, as recognition of La Trobe’s highly-successful evidence-based initiative to reduce bullying of same-sex attracted and gender diverse young people in schools”.
Roz Ward co-founded, developed and currently directs Safe Schools Coalition Victoria (SSCV), the first Australian program to specialise in supporting gender diversity and sexual diversity in schools. SSCV provided the model for the federally funded national program which has received international recognition for best practice from UNESCO. Through research-driven resources, teacher education and policy advocacy, the program promotes practical measures for creating affirming and inclusive learning environments for same sex attracted, gender diverse and intersex students, staff and families.
Roz’s academic interests are centred on translating research into practice with a specific focus on the experiences of same sex attracted, transgender and gender diverse young people. Roz has published a number of articles within this field, and has successfully advocated for policy changes to better meet the needs of LGBTI young people in Australia.
Roz would like to acknowledge the work of Professor Anne Mitchell and Professor Lynne Hillier, and their contributions to the Safe Schools Coalition.