A group of Australian celebrities including a pop star, Troye Sivan, has called for a new national anti-bullying program with a LGBTI focus to replace Safe Schools.
In a letter to Malcolm Turnbull the prominent Australians argue that Safe Schools has become “highly politicised and controversial” but LGBTI youth still need a program with sexuality and gender at its core owing to higher rates of suicide and bullying.
Signatories include the singer-songwriter Missy Higgins, the comedian Joel Creasey, the author and former newsreader Tracey Spicer and the actor Guy Pearce.
“We wish not for controversy but for a program with a goal that everyone can agree on: an end to bullying and domestic violence in Australia,” the letter said.
The activists said the new program should not be one “that seeks approval of the way certain members of our society live” but rather “only mutual respect and tolerance”.
The letter calls for a program that teaches students not to bully others based on religion, race, gender, sexuality, faith, disability, skin conditions, social standing or political persuasions.
But tolerance and respect of LGBTI people should be at the program’s core because gay teens are 14 times more likely to take their own lives in Australia, it said.
Sivan’s mother, Laurelle Mellet, said he had told his parents he was gay at age 14. “It made me nervous – I’d heard horrific stories of homophobic bullying and kids being suicidal at school,” she said.
“What’s worse is our education system won’t fight it – Malcolm Turnbull hasn’t renewed Safe Schools funding.
“To exclude anti-LGBTQI bullying programs from schools is beyond cruel. I’d like to think all parents would fight for a system that makes their child feel safe, not worthless.”
Sivan said in Australian schools thousands of kids were bullied on a daily basis because of their sexuality, as well as other attributes including social standing, skin conditions or disabilities.
“That’s why I’m getting behind a new push in the form of a letter to the Australian prime minister to roll out a national anti-bullying, anti-violence program in schools across Australia where students are taught to respect and tolerate those who are like me,” he said.
The Safe Schools program has been targeted by conservative critics who claim it promotes gender fluidity rather than simply teaching tolerance of sexual diversity.
In 2016 the program was overhauled after a review by the Turnbull government, including sharply reducing the lesson content, restricting it to secondary schools, removing all links to external material and sites, and adding a requirement that students get parental consent and schools get parent-body consent before opting to use its materials.
Safe Schools faces an uncertain future when its federal funding expires mid-year. New South Wales announced it would scrap the program and replace it with a new anti-bullying strategy.
But Victoria will continue to fund Safe Schools when its funding expires, Western Australian Labor was elected on a platform to fund it, and the Queensland Labor government has no plans to discontinue it.
The celebrities called for the new anti-bullying program’s curriculum to be set by education experts, paediatricians, psychologists and criminologists, and for its content to be reviewed every two years by a board appointed by the education minister but independent from government.
The letter called for a program that simultaneously targets homophobia and domestic violence, an approach adopted in the US, by citing research that the majority of male-to-male bullying is homophobic and “such bullies often become perpetrators of domestic violence later on in their adult lives”.
The group asked Turnbull to match Labor’s $6m election commitment to Safe Schools by setting aside a similar amount for a new program in the 9 May budget.