The Andrews Government will overhaul the Safe Schools program and cut ties with its controversial founder Roz Ward amid a public backlash that was set to intensify ahead of the Victorian election.
In a bid to protect the anti-bullying initiative, the education department will be in charge of delivering Safe Schools from next year, ensuring that the government is solely responsibility for rolling it out to every state secondary school by 2018.
The move is a significant shift for a program that was co-founded by Ms Ward almost seven years ago and has been delivered through her employer, La Trobe University, ever since.
But in recent months, Safe Schools has come under sustained attack by critics who claim it promotes “radical gender theory” or believe Ms Ward’s history as a hardline Marxist is too extreme.
“I think the campaign against Safe Schools has been quite disgraceful from people who should know better and do know better, but are using it as a political tool,” said Victorian Education Minister James Merlino, who wrote to La Trobe on Friday to inform the university its contract would be terminated six months early.
“But Safe Schools has always been about more than just one person; it’s about stopping the bullying and harassment of young people who are same-sex attracted and gender diverse. We know that it works – and we know that it saves lives.”
The Safe Schools Coalition began as a trial under the Brumby Government in 2010, after teachers asked for a specific set of resources to help them support students who were “coming out” as same-sex attracted or gender diverse.
Since then, about 60 per cent of schools in Victoria have signed up, but the government is keen to significantly scale up the program with minimal controversy over the next two years in order to fulfil its election commitment.
Under the new structure, teachers will continue to have access to the same lesson plans to support LGBTI students, but the department will have the scope to review and enhance the material if required in future. “This is about making it better and stronger,” Mr Merlino said.
Despite receiving bipartisan support, Safe Schools ran into controversy earlier this year when Malcolm Turnbull initiated a review at the behest of conservative forces within his ranks.
Ms Ward – an active member of the Socialist Alternative – has also repeatedly come under the spotlight over her politics and private antics. In June, for instance, the university educator almost lost her job at Latrobe after describing the Australian flag as racist on Facebook. And last month, she made headlines once again by being photographed trying to remove the cap from a Donald Trump supporter during an anti-Trump rally in Melbourne, while holding copies of the Marxist newspaper, Red Flag.
But on Friday – after hearing the news during an end-of-year lunch with her team – she said she was “shattered” by the government’s decision, insisting that the bringing the program “in-house” would do little to end the attacks by critics such as the Australian Christian Lobby or the Murdoch press.
“I don’t think backing down helps, it’s like giving a drop of blood to a bunch of sharks,” Ms Ward said.
“Four people are losing their full time jobs. They have been told they are getting sacked a week before Christmas. We’ve spent the last six years building relationships with schools in Victoria. We’ve worked with 280 schools, and with families that rely on and value the trust we had with them, and we don’t think that can be replicated.”
Equality Minister Martin Foley said making the education department responsible for Safe Schools would strengthen the program in the long term, ensuring that more same sex-attracted and gender diverse students could get access to much needed support.
But opposition education spokesman Nick Wakeling said the Premier should have scrapped the program altogether.
An LGBTI reference group co-chaired by Gender and Sexuality Commissioner Rowena Allen and education parliamentary secretary Judith Graley will also be expanded to include principals, students, parents and anti-bullying experts. The reference group would, in turn, support the education department to deliver the program.
La Trobe vice chancellor Professor John Dewar said in a memo to staff that the university was disappointed by the government’s decision but was committed to ensuring a smooth transition “to reduce any negative impact on young people in schools.”