“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”.
We now know that this playground ditty is wholly, unequivocally false. Peer reviewed data tells us this, the stories of adults living with the impact of trauma induced by childhood bullying tells us this, the common sense of our hearts and guts tell us this. Words do hurt. But what can we say to our young people when those hurtful words are coming from the mouths of Senators and Members of Parliament in Canberra?
The report of the review into the Safe Schools program was released on Friday and the Federal Government quickly formulated a response that scaled back aspects of the program. The Safe Schools programme contains classroom resources that aim to protect young people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities from bullying and abuse.
Overwhelmingly, the review found that the Safe School resources are “consistent with the aims of the programme and the Australian Curriculum, suitable, educationally sound and age-appropriate”.
Even where the review found that certain activities or materials may not be suitable in some class contexts, the reviewer leaves this to the discretion of “teacher professional judgement”.
The Federal Government did not, however, leave implementation of that material to teacher discretion.
Their response included broad-ranging changes to the programme. They restricted its availability to secondary school students, reduced content in it such as empathy-building role plays, required parent associations consent to its introduction and individual parental consent for young people to participate and removed all links to non-governmental sites.
Some of these changes may appear sensible, such as targeting the material in an age-appropriate manner. Although whether or not teacher discretion was creating that outcome anyway, was outside the scope of the review to determine.
Requiring parental permission to participate in the program is far more problematic. On the face of it, this might sound appealing to the community. It is important for parents to have a say in their children’s education. But there are very good reasons why children have inalienable rights that are considered as separate to the rights and interests of their parents. The law is there to protect a child’s best interests and not the parents’ rights in relation to their child. Sometimes those two things are incompatible, and at times when those interests clash, it is the child’s best interest that prevails under law.
And, as highlighted by President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs: “All children have the right to a safe and healthy childhood free from discrimination”.
A young person beginning to assert their gender identity or sexual orientation may also experience a less than accepting attitude at home, or outright discrimination and abuse. In these circumstances, it is unacceptable to ask that young person to jump such a treacherous hurdle in order to access support. Just as the law recognises that children may need to access medical care without the permission of their parents and allows for this in an age appropriate manner, so too may there be circumstances where a child needs to access a service that could secure their emotional and psychological wellbeing.
I return to those words, those sticks and stones, carelessly tossed about in the corridors of power in recent weeks. Senator Cory Benardi referred to the program as containing a “gay agenda” that will “indoctrinate kids with Marxist cultural relativism”. George Christensen MP even went so far as to claim that the programme is akin to a “paedophile grooming a victim”.
These barbs pierce the hearts of some of the most vulnerable members of our society – children experiencing appallingly high rates of verbal and physical bullying.
And what are these words telling our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex young people?
They are being told that their identity – the very essence of who they are – is not ‘normal’ and is open to contestation by those with power. We may not be able to erase your existence, they are told; but know this: you are not, and will never be, one of us.
Georgina Pike is a youth law advocate at Illawarra Legal Centre