Published: 12 April 2016

March 19, 2016 12:00am - The Hobart Mercury -  Opinion

I used to work in the Safe Schools program that faces the axe. It was not called that then. It was Family Life Education. I was employed by the Catholic welfare organisation Centacare, to deliver a program to school students from Kinder to Years 11 and 12 across the North-West Coast.


I conducted sessions in independent, Catholic and state schools, some with parent(s), others in school time with teachers in attendance.

I was the Sex Ed Lady.

The far-reaching benefits of the program were brought home to me only a couple of weeks ago when I received a message from a young man I didn’t know personally.

He wrote: “Random question, did you ever visit primary schools back in the ’90s and discuss topics such as families/sexuality etc?”

I responded: “Yes I did”.

The young man then wrote: “I just wanted to say thank you. It was the program that you delivered that made a huge difference in my life. Although I was in primary school and young.

“What you did for me was enough for me to know what was happening to me was wrong. I was being sexually abused and didn’t know what to do, being so young. 

You helped by explaining right from wrong and that what was happening to me was not right. I believe without your help it would have continued longer than it did.”

I was moved to reply, thankful that he was able to react appropriately to his circumstance and hoping that he was OK now.

He responded stating: “I am now in my early 30s. I grew up in the Ulverstone, but moved to the mainland 10 years ago and am still here. 

I only, in the last few years, finally had any closure by meeting and discussing what happened with the person that did it. After the meeting it was like a weight lifted off my shoulders.

“I’d imagine I am not the only person you assisted in some way. I thought you would like to hear how you helped me. Because it was done by a male it was more confusing for me.

“I remembered your sessions explained that sometimes when you are older a man can like a man and a lady can like a lady which is OK. I struggled for a long time asking myself - am I a gay male because 

of what happened to me or was I just born gay?

“I’m comfortable now as an adult to know I was born gay. It certainly wasn’t nice at a young age finding myself having ‘feelings’ for other boys of a sexual nature when I should have enjoyed being a kid. 

I wouldn’t dare know how much longer it would have gone on for having not attended your sessions.

“I’m almost certain you would have helped in some way so many more. If anything has come from it I am a very strong person, but like anybody when the pressure of something is too much, I’m comfortable 

asking for help.”

This young man’s message caused me to reflect on the sessions I delivered. Every session, regardless of the grade, started with a description of families and discussion about why families are important.

All family structures were acknowledged and accepted as part normal, including single-parent families, same-sex-parent families, foster families and step-families. 

In every school there are children who live in these varied family structures and to give meaning to the information that followed, they needed to know their family was as important as any other.

The sessions were always age appropriate and questions were always answered. Even left-field questions, as these came from a thirst for factual information, curiosity and occasionally the misguided notion 

they could embarrass me.

Although I warned them that many students before them had tried and failed to embarrass me — if they wanted to try they could go right ahead, but they would not succeed. They never did.

Another aspect of the program that was always delivered with almost identical words regardless of year group was around the issue of what I called “good and bad touches”.

Presenting this topic I used a calm, serious tone and didn’t take questions to ensure all students listened to the important message. 

A message I hoped would empower them to identify inappropriate physical contact and how to respond if it was happening or did happen to them. Without fail, every student listened intently.

The Safe Schools Program has recently come under attack from conservative segments in Australia, sadly cherry-picking bits to make spurious claims. The program is now being reviewed by the Federal Parliament.

The program I delivered from 1993 to 2005 sought to provide a safe environment for all students as they face uncertainty and curiosity about their growing and changing bodies, 

their relationships in and outside their families and their life choices. The Safe Schools program continues in this vein.

Some claims made about this program have been appalling, showing a willful disregard for the possible effect such criticism and comment may have on some students who, over the years, 

have been bullied and vilified for being different.

Have those critics experienced any of the confusion and rejection some students have suffered that this program seeks to address?

We know that many young people who are abused, sexually, physically and psychologically need support and understanding, not condemnation and judgment.

We know that some do not receive adequate support and some as a consequence take their own lives.

Surely, we as a civil society, aware of the abuse that has and continues to occur to our children, can see through the selective and emotive arguments of some who seek to undermine and threaten this program — one developed in a consultative and inclusive way, engaging all key stakeholders providing information and support to students who are vulnerable, at risk or simply needing factual information to hopefully avoid some of the harms inflicted by society.

Ruth Forrest is the Independent Member for Murchison.

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