Submission to NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into Youth Suicide

 

The NSW Parliamentary Committee on Children and Young People is currently holding an inquiry into the prevention of youth suicide. Full details can be found here. The following is my personal submission:

 

c/- childrenyoungpeople@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Sunday 27 August 2017

 

Dear Committee

 

Submission to Inquiry into Youth Suicide in NSW

 

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission to this important inquiry.

 

In this submission, I will be focusing on items (g) and (h) from the inquiry’s terms of reference: ‘Approaches taken by primary and secondary schools’ and ‘Any other related matters’ respectively.

 

Specifically, I will be discussing these terms of reference and how they relate to one of the groups that is disproportionately affected by mental health issues, depression and suicide: young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.

 

The National LGBTI Health Alliance confirms that LGBTI people, and especially young LGBTI people, are at much higher risk of suicide than non-LGBTI people. From the Alliance’s July 2016 ‘Snapshot of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Statistics for LGBTI People’:

 

“Compared to the general population, LGBTI people are more likely to attempt suicide in their lifetime, specifically:

 

  • LGBTI young people aged 16 to 27 are five times more likely
  • Transgender people aged 18 and over are nearly eleven times more likely
  • People with an intersex variation aged 16 and over are nearly six times more likely
  • LGBT young people who experience abuse and harassment are even more likely to attempt suicide.

 

Statistics for LGBTI Population:

 

  • 16% of LGBTI young people aged 16 to 27 reported that they had attempted suicide
  • 35% of Transgender people aged 18 and over have attempted suicide in their lifetime
  • 19% of people with an Intersex variation aged 16 and over had attempted suicide on the basis of issues related [to] their Intersex status
  • 8% of Same-Gender Attracted and Gender Diverse young people aged between 14 and 21 years had attempted suicide, 18% had experienced verbal abuse, and 37% of those who experienced physical abuse.

 

Statistics for General Population:

 

  • 2% of people (4.4% females; 2.1% males) aged 16 and over have attempted suicide in their lifetime; 0.4% of general population (0.5% females; 0.3% males) in the last 12 months
  • 1% of people (1.7% females; 0.5% males) aged 16 to 24 have attempted suicide in the past 12 months.”

 

These statistics are obviously incredibly alarming, and reveal the scale of the challenge of mental health issues experienced by LGBTI people, and especially young LGBTI people.

 

What should not be forgotten is that there is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ with LGBTI people, and LGBTI young people – their disproportionate rates of suicide are in response to external factors, including a lack of acceptance (or feared lack of acceptance) from parents, other family members and friends, as well as society-wide homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia.

 

Another contributing factor to high rates of LGBTI youth suicide – and perhaps most relevantly to this inquiry – is the school environment. While some schools are welcoming to all young people, including those of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and sex characteristics, other schools are far less welcoming – and some are even outright hostile.

 

For the purposes of this submission, I would nominate two key factors that help determine whether a school is welcoming of LGBTI young people:

 

  • Whether it has an explicit program addressing anti-LGBTI bullying (such as Safe Schools), and
  • Whether it has an inclusive curriculum for LGBTI students, with content that is relevant to their needs.

 

The importance of these two factors is confirmed by the 2010 Writing Themselves In 3 Report (by La Trobe University), which found that:

 

  • “61% of young people reported verbal abuse because of homophobia.
  • 18% of young people reported physical abuse because of homophobia.
  • School was the most likely place of abuse – 80% of those who were abused” (p39).

 

This last statistic is perhaps the most disturbing. Instead of being a place of learning, for far too many LGBTI young people, school is a place of intimidation, intolerance, and fear.

 

Although even more worrying is the fact that the proportion of students nominating school as a site of abuse increased from 1998 to 2004, and then again from 2004 to 2010 (p45) – rather than being more welcoming today, the schoolyard and the classroom is becoming more abusive.

 

Similarly, the Writing Themselves In 3 Report demonstrated that, in far too many schools, LGBTI students are not being included in the curriculum, both generally and specifically in relation to Health & Physical Education (including sex education).

 

From page 79: “10% of young people reported that their school did not provide any form of Sexuality Education at all.”

 

Even where some sexuality education was provided, it was primarily targeted at cisgender and heterosexual students. While almost 60% of students reported that the school provided information about heterosexual relationships, less than 20% received education about gay or lesbian relationships (p81).

 

And, while approximately 70% reported education about safe heterosexual sex, less than a quarter were instructed about safe gay sex and less than 20% about safe lesbian sex (p82).

 

Finally, roughly 1 in 10 reported learning that ‘homophobia is wrong’ as part of their sexuality education (p83), meaning that almost 90% of students were not receiving this important message.

 

Unfortunately, on both of these issues (anti-bullying programs, and an inclusive curriculum) NSW is clearly failing in its obligations to LGBTI young people.

 

First, in terms of Safe Schools, it was incredibly disappointing that the NSW Government abandoned this vital LGBTI anti-bullying program in April 2017.

 

Yes, there were some significant problems with this program – although not the ones that religious fundamentalists lied about in their dishonest campaign to undermine and destroy it.

 

Chief among the actual shortcomings of Safe Schools was the fact that it was an entirely optional program, meaning only a small proportion of schools had even begun to implement it by the time it was axed. Further, the schools that chose to implement it were likely the same schools that were already LGBTI-inclusive, while those that were less inclusive were far less likely to adopt the program.

 

Instead of abolishing Safe Schools, the NSW Government should have been working to ensure that it was rolled-out more widely, and ultimately to reach every school in the state (following the lead of Victoria) – because LGBTI students and young people exist in every school in the state.

 

Perhaps even worse than axing this program is the fact it has been replaced with a ‘general’ anti-bullying program and one that, based on media reports, does not include appropriate materials and resources to address the specific needs of LGBTI students and young people.

 

As reported in the Star Observer (Experts Slam NSW Anti-Bullying Resource as ‘Missed Opportunity for LGBTI Youth’, 21 July 2017:

 

“Leading health organisation ACON has expressed concern over the lack of LGBTI-specific tools and information in the new [anti-bullying] resource, despite liaising with the government in the months leading up to its launch.

 

Chief Executive of ACON Nicolas Parkhill said the new resource failed to meaningfully address the bullying, abuse, and discrimination faced by young LGBTI people.

 

“Bullying is an acute problem for young LGBTI people and this resources does not respond to their unique needs,” he said.

 

“Of concern is the absence of tools and resources that specifically address LGBTI bullying in schools – especially when we know it affects a significant proportion of young people.

 

“The government’s own report released earlier this month stated that 16.8 per cent of secondary school students in Australia are attracted to people of the same sex. That’s one in six students…

 

“We believe this resource falls short in responding to LGBTI bullying and there needs to be more emphasis placed on the needs of young LGBTI people.”

 

Based on this critique, it appears that the NSW Government has axed a program that was specifically designed to address anti-LGBTI bullying – which, as we saw earlier, is a contributing factor to LGBTI youth suicide – and replaced it with a ‘generalist’ anti-bullying program that does little to reduce this behaviour.

 

That is clearly not good enough.

 

Recommendation 1: The NSW Government should roll-out the Safe Schools program, or a similar program that specifically and explicitly deals with anti-LGBTI bullying, in every school across the state.

 

The Personal Development, Health and Physical Education (PDHPE) Syllabus is also not good enough in terms of how it includes – or, in many cases, excludes – LGBTI students and information that is relevant to their needs.

 

Earlier this year, the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) released a new draft PDHPE K-10 Syllabus for public consultation. Unfortunately, it fell far short of what is necessary to educate LGBTI students across the state, or to contribute to a reduction in youth suicide among this group.

 

As I outlined in my submission to NESA about the draft Syllabus (see Every Student. Every School. Submission on Draft NSW Personal Development, Health and Physical Education (PDHPE) Syllabus K-10), its problems include that:

 

  • It does not define the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex
  • It does not guarantee that all students in all schools will learn about these sexual orientations, gender identities or sex characteristics
  • It does not include sufficient LGBTI anti-bullying content, and
  • It does not offer appropriate, or adequate, sexual health education for students who are not cisgender and heterosexual, including a lack of information about sexually transmissible infections and diverse sexual practices.

 

If the PDHPE K-10 Syllabus is implemented without significant and substantive changes to the draft that was released, another generation of LGBTI young people will grow up without being told in the classroom that who they are is okay, and without learning vital information on how to keep themselves safe.

 

That would represent a failure of the NSW Government to exercise the duty of care that it owes to all students across the state.

 

Recommendation 2: The NSW Government should ensure that the PDHPE K-10 Syllabus is inclusive of LGBTI students, and provides content that is relevant to their needs, including comprehensive sexual health education.

 

The previous two issues – anti-bullying programs, and an inclusive curriculum – relate to term of reference (g) (Approaches taken by primary and secondary schools).

 

However, there is one final, non-school related matter that I would like to raise in this submission (under term of reference (h) – ‘Any other related matters’).

 

That is the issue of ‘ex-gay therapy’ or ‘gay conversion therapy’. As the name suggests, this practice aims to convince LGBT people that who they are is wrong, and that they should try to stop being who they are and instead attempt to be cisgender and heterosexual.

 

Let us be clear – ‘ex-gay therapy’ or ‘gay conversion therapy’ is not therapy, and does not offer anything ‘therapeutic’ to the people who are subjected to it. It is not counselling, nor does it have any basis in medical or scientific fact.

 

It is fundamentally harmful, and preys upon vulnerable people, exploiting their fears, their isolation and their insecurities. It leaves the vast majority of people feeling far worse, and can cause, or exacerbate, depression and other mental health issues, including leading to suicide.

 

Ex-gay therapy is psychological abuse, and the people who continue to ‘offer’ this practice are psychological abusers.

 

The NSW Government should outlaw this practice both because it is wrong, and because it is inherently harmful. This should be implemented by a criminal penalty for anyone conducting ex-gay therapy, with a separate penalty for advertising such services.

 

The imposition of ex-gay therapy on young LGBT people is particularly heinous, given they are especially vulnerable. Therefore, the fact that a person being subjected to ex-gay therapy is under 18 should be an aggravating factor for these criminal offences, attracting an increased penalty.

 

The prohibition of ex-gay therapy, and the protection of vulnerable LGBT people – and especially young LGBT people – from this practice is urgently required to help remove another cause of mental health issues, including possible suicide, of LGBTI youth in NSW.

 

Recommendation 3: The NSW Government should ban the practice of ‘ex-gay therapy’ or ‘gay conversion therapy’, making both conducting this practice, and advertising it, criminal offences. Offering these services to LGBT people under the age of 18 should be considered aggravating factors, attracting increased penalties.

 

Thank you for taking this submission into consideration. Please do not hesitate to contact me at the details provided should you require additional information, or to clarify any of the above.

 

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

 

There's no place for discrimination in the classroom-7

NSW schools have an important role to play in preventing LGBTI youth suicide – one that they are currently failing to fulfil.

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The National Curriculum Review Fails to Support LGBTI Students

The Final Report of the Review of the Australian Curriculum, conducted by Ken Wiltshire and Kevin Donnelly, was released on Sunday 12 October 2014, accompanied by the Commonwealth Government’s Response (both documents can be found at the following link: <http://www.studentsfirst.gov.au/review-australian-curriculum ).

Based on initial reporting (including this article by Samantha Maiden in The Sunday Telegraph <http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/nsw/teenagers-should-be-given-lessons-on-sex-and-drugs-national-curriculum-report-states/story-fni0cx12-1227087475187 ), you could be forgiven for believing that the outcome of the Review was, overall, a positive one for LGBTI students, with a commitment to include content relevant to their needs.

Unfortunately, however, a closer examination of the Final Report, and the Government’s Response, reveals that it is nothing more than another missed opportunity, yet another failure to ensure that the national Health & Physical Education (HPE) curriculum caters to the needs of all students, including those of different sexual orientations, gender identities and intersex status.

To understand just how far short of this standard the ‘Wiltshire & Donnelly’ Review falls, we must first look back at the development of the HPE curriculum. Drafted by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment & Reporting Authority (ACARA) during 2012 and 2013, the HPE curriculum was subject to two rounds of formal public consultation, before the current draft was submitted for the consideration of COAG Education Ministers late last year.

Despite a number of submissions highlighting the HPE curriculum’s failure to genuinely include LGBTI students and content (including two from yours truly: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/04/11/submission-on-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/ and <https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/07/30/submission-on-redrafted-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/ ), and even after some minor tinkering around the edges (with a couple of welcome references to ‘homophobia’ and ‘transphobia’ added), the current draft of the HPE curriculum does not guarantee that all students will learn what they need to know to be comfortable in who they are, and to stay safe.

In particular, as I made clear in my submission to the National Curriculum Review itself, the draft HPE curriculum:

  • Has significant problems in terms of terminology – for example, it does not even use the words ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’ once in the entire document.
  • Includes a fine-sounding commitment to student diversity that is almost immediately undermined by allowing “schools flexibility to meet the learning needs of all young people” – and which is especially poor when compared with the first draft that clearly stated that “same-sex attracted and gender diverse students exist in all Australian schools”.
  • Does not ensure students receive comprehensive sexual health education – with no year band descriptions providing a minimum level of information about sexually transmissible infections, and no references to condoms either, and
  • Completely excludes HIV and other BBVs, like hepatitis B and C – despite the fact that, more than 30 years into the HIV epidemic in Australia, the number of transmissions is rising (with one potential cause a lack of comprehensive and inclusive sexual health/BBV education for students).

[NB My full submission to the National Curriculum Review is available here: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/03/13/submission-to-national-curriculum-review-re-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/ ].

The choice to appoint noted homophobe Kevin Donnelly (see my letter to Minister Pyne calling for Mr Donnelly to be sacked on that basis: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/01/11/letter-to-minister-pyne-re-health-physical-education-curriculum-and-appointment-of-mr-kevin-donnelly/ ) to review what was already a poor document was obviously a major concern.

And I will be the first to admit that the Final Report of the National Curriculum Review, including its recommendations about the HPE curriculum, is not as bad as was initially anticipated. But just because it did not live down to some exceptionally low expectations, does not mean that the outcome for the HPE curriculum, and its potential impact on LGBTI students, was in any way positive.

The first major failing of the National Curriculum Review’s approach is that it appears to concede, without mustering much opposition, that, far from being a national minimum standard, the HPE curriculum is essentially optional.

For example, it notes that “one jurisdiction said it would refuse to implement the content in sexual orientation” (which appears to be Western Australia), while “a few schools are implacably opposed to the inclusion of such material [sexuality education] and some have refused to teach it”, and “[o]ne organisation claimed they would not teach it as prescribed as it did not fit in with their religious values.”

Presumably, that final organisation was the National Catholic Education Office (NCEC), with the Final Report noting that “the submission by the NCEC signals that Catholic schools reserve the right to implement the Australian Curriculum according to the uniquely faith-based and religious nature of such schools: For example, as usual in all Catholic schools, the new Health and Physical Education Curriculum will need to be taught in the context of a Personal Development program informed by Catholic values on the life and personal issues involved” (emphasis in original).

Which means that Catholic Schools – which now account for more than 1-in-5 students across Australia – (presumably) Western Australian schools, and select other schools, have all refused to implement a document that wasn’t even genuinely LGBTI-inclusive to start.

The second major failing, or in this case potential failing, of the National Curriculum Review’s approach is that it supports “the need to reduce the amount of content overall”, noting that “[s]ubmissions and consultations and the opinion of the subject matter specialist suggest that it is overcrowded and needs some slimming down and some restricting of year-level content. Some of the content could well be addressed more in school-based activity.”

Indeed, one of its key recommendations is that “[t]he core content should be reduced and a significant portion should become part of school-based curriculum…” While this recommendation isn’t explicitly linked to LGBTI-related content, there is now a real risk that, in finalising the HPE Curriculum, either at the COAG Education Ministers meeting in December, or subsequently during 2015, what little LGBTI-inclusive material there is may be on the chopping block. This is something that will need to be monitored closely in coming months.

The third major failing of the National Curriculum Review in this area is that, rather than mandating that every student, in every school, receives a minimum level of LGBTI-related education, it instead supports ever greater levels of ‘flexibility’ in terms of what is delivered in the classroom (noting that that the original HPE curriculum already supported ‘flexibility’ in this area).

For example, in one particularly telling paragraph it notes “[o]ther schools, including Christian schools, have advised us that they are comfortable with the inclusion of such content [sexuality education] in the health and physical education curriculum, provided there is flexibility so that they are able to teach it at the age level they deem appropriate, and by mature teachers rather than younger ones who may feel challenged in this arena. We think this is the way forward.”

Which, upon analysis, is actually a pretty bizarre statement – not just because it shouldn’t matter how old a teacher is, as long as they are appropriately qualified, but also because the National Curriculum Review is essentially agreeing to schools disregarding the evidence of when it is best to provide sexuality/sexual health education to students. Instead, the Review supports allowing schools to teach this content at whatever age they wish, without any justification, and presumably delaying it beyond the age at which it would be most valuable.

The recommendation in this area goes even further: “[t]he two controversial areas of sexuality and drugs education should remain, but schools should be given greater flexibility to determine the level at which these areas are introduced and the modalities in which they will be delivered…” (emphasis added). Which means that even how sexuality education is taught is apparently negotiable.

The net outcome of the National Curriculum Review, at least as it concerns Health & Physical Education, is this: A curriculum that already largely excludes LGBTI students and content, is, in practice, essentially optional, with at least one jurisdiction, one religion-based school system, and other individual schools all opting-out. What LGBTI-related subject matter there is remains under threat as the content is ‘slimmed down’ in coming months, while those religious schools that do teach ‘sexuality education’ will have the ‘flexibility’ to choose when it is taught, how it is taught and even by whom it is taught.

Which, to me at least, sounds like the exact opposite of what a national curriculum should be – and demonstrates just how big a missed opportunity this entire process has been.

A national Health & Physical Education curriculum should be a document that recognises that, no matter what state they reside in, and irrespective of the type of school they attend (government, religious or private), all LGBTI students have the fundamental right to an inclusive education.

The existing HPE curriculum does not even come close to recognising that right, and the Final Report of the Australian Curriculum Review will not deliver it, either. That is why we must give the ‘Wiltshire & Donnelly’ Review a fail – because it fails to support LGBTI students.

Two final points. First, at least one of the explanations for why the National Curriculum Review has ultimately failed LGBTI students lies in the fact that it actively bought into the notion that the area of ‘sexuality education’ is somehow controversial. Well, that is simply not true.

Just because there are people who disagree with something does not make it controversial. Just because some governments, religious organisations, individual schools and even some parents do not think students should be taught material because it is LGBTI-inclusive, does not mean their opinion is valid.

None of their individual or collective prejudices about sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status trump the rights of LGBTI students to hear about themselves in the classroom, and to be taught that who they are is okay. Nor do the so-called interests of these groups override the need to reduce the number of suicides of young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, an ongoing tragedy in schools and communities across the country.

Which brings me to my final point. Some people believe that the inclusion of the following paragraph indicates that the Curriculum Review is supportive of LGBTI students:

“Expert medical opinion is clear that, along with the earlier maturation of young people, there is currently a serious crisis – including youth suicides – occurring in Australian society in this domain as a result of a lack of forums and spaces where young people can discuss such issues, including sexuality. The school setting, on the assumption that the curriculum is balanced and objective in dealing with what are sensitive and often controversial issues, offers one of the few neutral places for this to occur.”

Of course, I agree with the majority of this statement (reference to ‘controversial’ aside) – as would many advocates operating in this area. But, if you are to raise the spectre of youth suicide, and LGBTI youth suicide in particular, but then fail to deliver a document that would do anything to tackle this crisis, then, Mr Wiltshire and Mr Donnelly, your words aren’t just hollow and tokenistic, they are offensive.

Ken Wiltshire & Kevin Donnelly's National Curriculum Review has failed LGBTI students around the country.

Ken Wiltshire & Kevin Donnelly’s National Curriculum Review has failed to support LGBTI students around the country.