If Not “Safe”, Then Safer Schools

In year 12, a friend and I met with the director of students at my high school to discuss the school’s treatment of LGBTI* students. The director remained convinced that they weren’t doing anything wrong, but was receptive to our suggestions otherwise and, by the end of the year, the school had signed up to Safe Schools and started developing a two-year action plan. I went back in late 2016 though, a year after graduating, and she told me that amidst the media hysteria around the program, all they’d managed to implement was some staff training. I told her I was very happy with that – knowing that school, I was.

My high school was very much a rural school and most staff came from a rural background. This meant that many of them carried that little bias against LGBTI* people that seems so common within rural communities. It isn’t necessarily homophobia; it is ignorance, and the dismissal of the specific problems faced by LGBTI* high school students, or at worst, the denial of their existence. For the most part the school just ignored the presence of LGBTI* students. This is why the director of students thought they were doing okay. How could they be doing wrong if they were doing nothing and there weren’t that many LGBTI* students at the school anyway?

It is true that there weren’t many openly LGBTI* students there – but it was well known, even to the staff, that many students came out a year after graduating. I was openly lesbian from year eight until I finished year 12, and for most of that time, I was one of two or three openly LGBTI* students at a school of 600 – that’s if I wasn’t the only one. Of course, there were many more in the closet, which – as we pointed out to the director of students – says more about how the school treats LGBTI* students than how many LGBTI* students there were.

While I did have students target me for being a lesbian, it was the staff response to these situations that represented the biggest issue. Before I was out, in year seven and eight sex education, we were told that LGBTI* people weren’t at our school – and so we could forget about them. In year eight PE, during a much-dreaded dance lesson not long after I came out, a group of boys threatened to sexually assault me to “turn me straight.” My PE teacher just shook her head awkwardly and referred me to another teacher, who told me that I just shouldn’t have come out. I was told not to talk about my sexuality for the rest of the year.

In year 10, I found out (through a friend, and a newer teacher) that my sexuality was on a school record; the school was advising my teachers that my sexuality was a “problem” without even consulting me. That year, a member of staff went out of their way to trigger my anxiety, restrict some of my friends from being around me and deny me access to early-application university scholarships and the debating team. I’ve never had any way to confirm this treatment was related to the school’s classification of my sexuality – but it felt as if it were connected.

You might have noticed that my personal anecdotes skipped year nine. It is no coincidence that in year nine, my year level coordinator was supportive. A lot of students disliked her – she had a low tolerance for people that mucked around in class – but if you stayed on her good side, she was lovely. When a particular boy in my class started attacking me online, I took a chance on my being on that good side – and the persistent and inappropriate rumour that she was gay herself – and told her about it. She told me he shouldn’t be attacking me, which was a nice change to “you shouldn’t be so openly lesbian”. She took us both discretely out of a class to make him apologise, sent him back inside, and then made sure I was okay. There were a few other incidents that year, but they didn’t cause me too much pain because I knew there was a teacher I could go to that wouldn’t blame me.

When I went to the director of students in 2015, I wasn’t thinking about the boys that threatened me in year eight, or the boy that liked calling me that f-word on Facebook, or the girls that called me disgusting just for existing. I was thinking about the less-than-nice teachers who encouraged me to stop reporting harassment to the school and the teacher that caused me to spend large parts of year 10 suicidal. I was thinking about how even after my fellow students, attackers and I had left the school, those staff would still be there, ready to make life hell for another LGBTI* student. I was thinking about what a difference just one supportive staff member had made. That was why, returning in 2016, staff training felt like a satisfying achievement.

In an ideal world, Safe Schools or its equivalent would be compulsory (thanks, Victoria) in all its applications. It would include the anti-bullying training, and the sexuality and gender diversity curriculum that the media so loves to hate. However, none of that is ever going to have a real effect on students’ experiences if the staff – across both teaching and administration – aren’t also informed and supportive. The role of fellow students in shaping a school experience shouldn’t be diminished, but the role of teachers is so fundamental to how well you can deal with anything those other students throw at you. Staff training on LGBTI* inclusiveness, whether it’s called Safe Schools or not, needs to be compulsory in every school in Australia. LGBTI* students exist, and staff need to know how to not make things worse for them – especially if teaching kids not to bully their LGBTI* classmates is somehow too much to ask at this point.