Secrecy over Safe Schools in NSW criticised
Rebecca Urban, The Australian, 14 February 2017
NSW is under mounting pressure to reveal the names of schools signed up to the controversial Safe Schools program after the state’s privacy and information watchdog rejected claims that disclosure would expose students to serious harm, harassment or intimidation.
The department has twice knocked back a disclosure request under the Government Information Public Access Act, arguing that releasing the names of participating schools would also lead to the potential identification of individual students.
New Education Minister Rob Stokes, who has been in the job for less than a month, yesterday endorsed the department’s decision, suggesting that the government’s position on the Safe Schools program, which assists same-sex attracted and transgender youth by promoting sexual diversity and gender fluidity, was unlikely to change.
Documents seen by The Australian suggest that principals campaigned heavily for the department to keep the list a secret, with many expressing concerns over disclosure.
The Safe Schools Coalition had previously listed member schools on its website. However, the NSW government pulled its schools from the website last July. According to the Education Department, of the 31 public schools previously outed as Safe Schools members, more than half had claimed they had been negatively targeted as a result. Consequently, some schools had withdrawn from the program, while several principals reported that parents had removed their children from the school. One principal, who has not been identified, claimed he was slandered and his family attacked after the school’s name appeared on the register.
Safe Schools Coalition Australia claims that 304 schools nationwide are members. Victoria, which is run separately to the national group, has 284 member schools. NSW is not the only state to order schools be hidden from public view, with Queensland doing the same last year.
Labor MP Greg Donnelly, a longstanding Safe Schools critic, requested a list of NSW primary and secondary school members under the GIPA Act last July. The department rejected the application in September.
Mr Donnelly appealed to the Information and Privacy Commission, which ruled in his favour, recommending the department make a new decision, with “regard to the matters raised and guidance in this report”.
Information Commissioner Elizabeth Tydd took particular issue with the department’s claim that disclosing the information could “reasonably be expected to expose a person to a risk of harm”.
According to the report, the phrase “reasonably be expected to” meant more than a “mere possibility, risk or chance” and must “not be purely speculative, fanciful, imaginary or contrived”.
Ms Tydd argued that the department was required to “specify the person to which the possibility of harm applies and substantiate the risk and that the risk is serious”, which it had not done. She also questioned how publicly disclosing the name of a school alone would constitute disclosure of personal information about an “unspecified student”. “For these reasons we are not satisfied that … the (department) has justified its decision,” Ms Tydd said.
Following an internal review, the department affirmed its decision this month. It cited an Australian Human Rights Commission report that said schools were “significant sites of homophobic violence and abuse”, with the problem “increasing over time”.
Mr Donnelly, who is considering appealing over the matter to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal, expressed concerns that the department continued to withhold the information, despite the criticisms of the Information Commissioner. “It begs the question, what is the NSW government hiding,” he said.
The department stood by its decision. “Disclosing the list of participating schools is reasonably likely to prejudice the effective exercise by those schools of their functions in relation to student safety, welfare and wellbeing and would enable students to be identified and consequently put them at risk of harm, serious harassment or serious intimidation,” a spokesman said.
Mr Stokes said he had been advised that disclosing the list of participating schools was “reasonably likely to risk student safety, welfare and wellbeing”.
“The last thing I want to do is put a child at risk,” he said.