No backing down on Safe Schools, Victorian Education Minister James Merlino tells parents

The Age, 11 February 2017

The Safe Schools program will continue to be offered to primary-aged children despite the prospect of a backlash, with [Victorian] state Education Minister James Merlino telling parents he is personally invested in ensuring all LGBTI students are properly supported.

Two months after the Andrews government announced it would overhaul Safe Schools – and remove its controversial founder Roz Ward – Mr Merlino has held private talks with families and youth groups who feared the restructure could end up compromising the program.

The Youth Affairs Council, Rainbow Families Victoria, and other community representatives met with Mr Merlino on January 18, raising concerns that the Education Department, which has taken over the program, might not have the necessary expertise to ensure that children get the specialised help they need.

Some had also feared the political heat could also result in the “risk-averse” bureaucracy backing away from the more controversial parts of the program, such as the support offered to primary school children who are dealing with gender identity issues.

However, the government insists the overhaul will not result in Safe Schools being watered down, and that it is committed to rolling it out by the end of 2018 to the remaining 40 per cent of public schools yet to sign up.

It has also confirmed that primary schools will still have access to individual support plans for students who are “transitioning” or are gender diverse, in collaboration with their families.

“I personally feel very strongly about this issue and making sure all students feel safe at school, learn about diversity and respect for others.” Mr Merlino told The Sunday Age.

“Work is underway on expanding Safe Schools to all Victorian government secondary schools by the end of 2018. We will continue to work with the LGBTI community – and I will continue to assure community groups of this.”

Mr Merlino did not discuss details of his meeting, but it is understood that during the talks, the minister made it clear that the issue of LGBTI equality had been a deeply personal journey for him.

As The Sunday Age revealed last year, for instance, it wasn’t until recently that Mr Merlino – a strict Catholic linked to Labor’s most conservative union – decided to support same-sex marriage, after watching his own three young children grow up.

“What I’ve concluded is that if one of my kids said to me ‘dad, I’m gay’, there wouldn’t be an ounce of difference in my love for my child. I would want them to be happy and safe at school,” the deputy premier said at the time.

But the government is also bracing itself for lingering tensions surrounding Safe Schools – both from opponents who want the program scrapped, and those who remain unsure about the department running it.

Ms Ward and her supporters are also believed to still be angered by the government takeover, which was announced in December – with barely any consultation – after months of sustained attacks from sections of the community and the Murdoch press.

The Safe Schools founder has kept a low profile since then, but was pictured at last month’s Pride March marching next to a sign, held by an ally, that said: “Sack the Government.”

A new team to run Safe Schools – comprising experienced educators and program managers – will be announced within weeks. However, it is still not clear how they will achieve the government’s pledge to expand the program to all state secondary schools, particularly if some schools do not wish to take part. (So far 284 school have signed up, including 193 government secondary schools).

Youth Affairs Council chief executive Georgie Ferrari said while the government had reassured them that Safe Schools would not be jeopardised, “these next few months are really critical in seeing those words turn into action.”


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