In a highly passionate debate Bega Valley Shire councillors discussed the Safe Schools Program late on Wednesday resulting in a close vote, 5-4, in favour of giving their support to the program.
The Safe Schools Coalition Australia is funded by the Australian government and aims at creating safe and supportive school environments for same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse people by reducing homophobic and transphobic bullying and discrimination in schools.
In proposing the motion for support of the program, Greens councillor Cathy Griff admitted that it had been controversial.
“But changes have been made and it is not applied to primary schools. It is recognised that it is not a perfect program but if it has a positive impact and saves one life it’s worth it. I am told it is very clear and an opt-in resource,” Cr Griff said.
“Statistics from beyondblue show up to 50 per cent of transgender people have attempted suicide at least once in their lives. Same-sex attracted young people in Australian have vastly higher rates of suicide attempts in comparison to their heterosexual peers. The average age of a first suicide attempt is 16 years – often before ‘coming out’,” Cr Griff said in her presentation to council.
She maintained it was council business because council resolved to support marriage equality at its meeting of September 25, 2013, and Safe Schools reflected a similarly ethical acceptance and compassion for non-heterosexual people.
“Bega High School has voluntarily opted in to implement the Safe Schools program, and our support of them and other young people in the area is important. At its core, this is a program that is funded with the objective of reducing discrimination and promoting tolerance,” Cr Griff said.
The program has attracted controversy not least because of the politics of the co-founder of the program, Roz Ward. It was this aspect that had councillor Mitchell Nadin on his feet first to launch a tirade against Ms Ward and the program.
“I can’t agree this program plays a suitable role in schools. There has been a public outcry over this program and it still remains controversial and remains unsalvageable,” Cr Nadin said adding that Ms was a Marxist and a radical.
“If children are not confused enough they are being told they can essentially choose their gender. It should have been so simple but this is just politics masquerading as policy. The brand is tarnished beyond repair,” he said.
Councillor Jo Dodds said that local schools were rolling out the program and if it saved one life from suicide it was important and urged councillors to support it.
“This is not a project that has been marched in through the front door, this is not strangers coming in to do this,” Cr Dodds said.
But councillor Robyn Bain said that she had checked with the local member and no local school had signed up to the program although Bega High School had asked for the paperwork.
“We are here as the local government of Bega Valley Shire and I did check with the local member how many have signed up and the answer was none,” Cr Bain said.
“One school in Bega has asked for the paperwork. We spend copious amounts of hours discussing communication and talking with the community and then stand up on a issue and espouse our personal beliefs. Not one school has asked for this program,” Cr Bain said.
However councillor Liz Seckold reminded the meeting that it was all about the safety and wellbeing of students in local schools.
“I would like to remind you that domestic and international research shows that an inclusive environment is good for students. You don’t have to use all the resources and can choose what is relevant to your school,” Cr Seckold said.
Councillor Russell Fitzpatrick said he was “horrified” by the program. “This is not part of the local government curriculum,” he said.
“Bega sought the program but no-one has adopted it and no one school has to date sought information or requested the application,” Cr Fitzpatrick said.
“The notion of a safe school, no-one would not support that. All children should be able to attend school and not be bullied. As a father and a grandfather I saw the program and was horrified by it. As Cr Nadin suggested no wonder the current government is looking at reviewing it,” Cr Fitzpatrick said.
Both councillor Sharon Tapscott and Cr Griff pointed out schools were free to chose what elements of the program they wanted to use. “This is not something that is taught but is a resource,” Cr Griff said.
“Anything that affects the welfare of our children affects the local shire and feeds into the welfare of the shire. I have enough confidence in my school leaders they will pick what they need from that program. If they haven’t signed up then that’s fine too. This is just another resource and if it works for them fine, ” Cr Tapscott said in support of the motion.
However councillor Tony Allen said he didn’t agree.
“I have put seven children through school. I absolutely agree there are things that happen at school that shouldn’t, but that’s part of living and we can’t fix that. This is not the type of program to be used,” Cr Allen said.
Mayor Kristy McBain said she understood that the Safe Schools Program was needed but also recognised the feelings in the room that some of the material was not appropriate.
Cr Griff who proposed the five point motion agreed to modifications by Cr Kristy McBain which removed clauses making council promote the program through its website and write to local schools to notify them of its support for the Safe Schools Coalition Australia program.
Councillors Kristy McBain, Sharon Tapscott, Jo Dodds, Cathy Griff and Liz Seckold voted for the motion.
Councillors Robyn Bain, Mitchell Nadin, Russell Fitzpatrick and Tony Allen voted against the motion.