Salvation Army in retreat on Safe Schools program
Rebecca Urban, The Australian, 5 December 2016
The Salvation Army has backed away from the controversial Safe Schools Coalition after its surprise support of the program sparked a backlash from members.
Just a fortnight after the Salvation Army’s Victorian branch strongly supported the program, the organisation has quietly released a revised national statement.
“Whilst acknowledging such positive outcomes (to address bullying), the Salvation Army cannot unconditionally support the Safe Schools programs in Australia in their current form,’’ the statement says.
“We believe there needs to be consideration and refinement to the scope and form of implementation.”
The embarrassing backdown late last week is reminiscent of Telstra’s bungled attempt to withdraw from actively supporting the marriage equality campaign earlier this year.
It pulled out only to change its mind within days due to the negative publicity and fear of a customer exodus.
The Australian understands that the Salvation Army, one of the world’s largest Christian welfare organisations, was inundated with complaints from members in the days after it publicly declared support for Safe Schools last month.
Several members of Victoria’s Liberal opposition, including education spokesman Nick Wakeling and colleague Inga Peulich, met senior Salvation Army figures to discuss the program.
The anti-bullying program, which has been adopted by more than 500 schools across the country, has divided the community partly due to its controversial founder, LGBTI activist and Marxist Roz Ward, as well as its promotion of contested gender theory.
The program’s federal funding will not be renewed next year, but the Victorian government has stepped in, dedicating $1 million to its further rollout.
The Salvation Army, which has previously come under fire for its treatment of the LGBTI community, surprised many when it welcomed the Andrews government’s funding commitment.
“The Salvation Army’s Victorian state council has been aware of the negative claim about the Safe Schools program and its related material,” it said at the time.
“It is also aware that there are claims that the program promotes cross-dressing, teaches kids that their gender is ‘fluid’ and provides instruction in chest-binding (so that girls can appear as boys).”
State chairman Geoff Webb said the Salvation Army’s social policy unit had reviewed the official teaching resources and studied the federal government’s independent review of the program.
“None of the negative claims made about the program actively reflect anything in the official materials reviewed,” Dr Webb said at the time.
But Friday’s revised statement, titled Salvation Army Announces National Position on Safe Schools, reiterated that while the organisation was deeply concerned about the wellbeing of LGBTI students, any government-approved anti-bullying program “needs to consider all high-risk student groups”.
“To this end the Salvation Army is open to working with state and federal governments and other agencies to develop a program that more comprehensively addresses the issues associated with bullying within schools,” it said.
Dr Webb did not respond to requests for further comment at the weekend but Salvation Army national media spokesman Bruce Redman told The Australian that while the initial support was delivered with the best intentions, subsequent investigation revealed significant state-by-state variations in the way the program was delivered.
“In Queensland, for example, parents are very much involved, and they can choose to opt in or opt out,” Dr Redman said.
“But to issue a blanket edict and say, ‘everyone’s involved … we’re just going to deliver the program’. That probably needs to be looked at.”
Mr Wakeling, whose party has called on the Andrews government to immediately dump the program, confirmed he had been involved in meetings with senior Salvation Army figures in which the program was discussed.
“I don’t think the issue here is so much about the Salvation Army changing its position,’’ he said.
“What it really demonstrates is that this toxic program has little or no support in the wider community.’’
Mr Wakeling welcomed the Salvation Army’s call for a more comprehensive anti-bullying program for schools.
A representative from Safe Schools Coalition Australia did not respond to a request for comment by late yesterday.