Safe Schools set for revamp as state cuts ties with founder

Farrah Tomazin

The Andrews government will overhaul the Safe Schools program and cut ties with its founder Roz Ward amid a public backlash that was set to intensify ahead of the Victorian election.

In a bid to protect the anti-bullying initiative, the Education De­partment will be in charge of deliver­ing Safe Schools from next year, en­suring the government is solely re­sponsible for rolling it out to every state secondary school by 2018.

The move is a significant shift for a program that was co-founded by Ms Ward almost seven years ago and has been delivered through her employer, La Trobe University, ever since.

But in recent months, Safe Schools has come under sustained attack by critics who claim it pro­motes “radical gender theory” or be­lieve Ms Ward’s history as a hard-line Marxist is too extreme.

“I think the campaign against Safe Schools has been quite dis­graceful from people who should know better and do know better, but are using it as a political tool,” said Victoria Education Minister James Merlino, who wrote to La Trobe on Friday [16 December] to inform the university its contract would be terminated six months early.

“But Safe Schools has always been about more than just one per­son; it’s about stopping the bullying and harassment of young people who are same-sex attracted and gender diverse. We know it works, and we know it saves lives.”

The Safe Schools Coalition began as a trial under the Brumby govern­ment in 2010, after teachers asked for a specific set of resources to help them support students who were “coming out” as same-sex attracted or gender diverse. Since then, about 60 per cent of schools in Victoria have signed up, but the government is keen to scale up the program with minimal controversy over the next two years in order to fulfil its elec­tion commitment.

Under the new structure, teach­ers will continue to have access to the same lesson plans to support LGBTI students, but the depart­ment will have the scope to review and enhance the material if required in future. “This is about making it better and stronger,” Mr Merlino said.

Despite receiving bipartisan sup­port, Safe Schools ran into contro­versy earlier this year when Mal­colm Turnbull initiated a review at the behest of conservative forces within his ranks.

Ms Ward, an active member of the Socialist Alternative, has also repeatedly come under the spotlight over her politics and private antics.

In June, for instance, the university educator almost lost her job at La Trobe after describing the Aus­tralian flag as racist on Facebook. And last month, she made headlines once again by being photographed trying to remove the cap from a Don­ald Trump supporter during an anti-Trump rally in Melbourne, while holding copies of the Marxist news­paper, Red Flag.

But on Friday, after hearing the news during an end-of-year lunch with her team, she said she was “shattered” by the government’s de­cision, insisting that bringing the program “in house” would do little to end the attacks by critics such as the Australian Christian Lobby or the Murdoch press.

“I don’t think backing down helps, it’s like giving a drop of blood to a bunch of sharks,” she said. “Four people are losing their full-time jobs. They have been told they are getting sacked a week before Christmas. We’ve spent the last six years build­ing relationships with schools in Vic­toria. We’ve worked with 280 schools with families that rely on and value the trust we had with them, and we don’t think that can be replicated.”

Equality Minister Martin Foley said making the Education Depart­ment responsible for Safe Schools would strengthen the program in the long term, ensuring more same sex-attracted and gender diverse students could get access to support,

An LGBTI reference group, co-chaired by Gender and Sexuality Commissioner Rowena Allen and education parliamentary secretary Judith Grayley, will also be expanded to include principals, students, par­ents and anti-bullying experts. The reference group would, in turn, sup­port the Education Department to deliver the program.