Keeping our youth safe is one of the greatest priorities for governments, and every single child in our schools deserves this protection. I am concerned, however, that the Government has tunnel vision with regards to the current Safe Schools program. While I wholeheartedly support all efforts to create a safe and supportive environment in schools, we need to be more inclusive in our efforts. So many of our youth are vulnerable, and they also deserve their schools to be safe places for them. The Government needs to be as fair and inclusive as it can.
Our Indigenous youth consistently face disadvantage and racism, and supporting them should be a priority. Students from other cultural backgrounds can also face racism or feel that they do not belong. I was saddened to recently read about a Sikh youth being bullied in Melbourne. A group called his turban a ‘worthless towel’ before hitting him and trying to remove it. This young man rightly considered this an attack on both his faith and his identity.
I remember vividly what it was like attending high school as a student from a Pacific Islander background. I have spoken to a number of Pacific Islander youth who have told me that they are not taken seriously academically and are only expected to be good at sports. When they are not interested in sports, they are left feeling that they do not belong.
There are many reasons why a student might be bullied at school. Some might be bullied because they do not seem smart. Others are bullied because they are too smart or because they are socially awkward. Youth from homes that experience domestic violence are particularly likely to become disengaged from school. I’ve personally seen this. All of these vulnerable youth should be the focus of any ‘safe schools’ program.
I call upon the Government to broaden its scope so that we can make our schools safe and supportive for all vulnerable youth. Any anti-bullying program should focus on, and be appropriate for, all youth. The Safe Schools curriculum resources that have been used in some ACT schools have made those schools harmful for some kids.
I have personally met youth who have gone home from classes in tears, so upset that they couldn’t sleep. They have refused to return to these classes because they feel unsafe there. As one student said, ‘I have been told my whole life that people don’t have a right to touch my body in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable, so why is it okay for a teacher to touch my mind in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable in the exact same way?’
Clearly, the Government needs to respect children’s rights and the role of parents by seeking parental consent in regards to any such programs. Only by following these principles will we have a program for all of our Canberra youth. And only then will we truly have safe and inclusive schools.