Christian commentators have welcomed the rollback of the controversial Safe Schools anti-bullying programme while warning that the battle against the ideology behind it will continue.

With federal funding for Safe Schools expiring this year, New South Wales and Tasmania have announced that they will not take over funding of the programme.

NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes announced at the Easter weekend that the state would instead “develop an updated anti-bullying strategy that will be a new resource available for teachers from the beginning of Term Three.”

Safe Schools had a particular focus on protecting LGBTI students from homophobic attacks, and taught that gender was fluid rather than set at birth. The curriculum was developed by LaTrobe University in Victoria.

Since the programme was introduced in 2014, there has been an epidemic of gender anxiety and confusion in young children, experts say.

Paediatrician John Whitehall believes the Safe Schools programme prepared the way for what he called the “trendy fad” of gender dysphoria in that children are being told to accept gender fluidity as normal.

“I do not believe that the entity of serious confusion is real – I think it is an environmental fad.” – Paediatrician Dr John Whitehall

Whitehall, who is foundation chair of paediatrics and child health in the School of Medicine at the University of Western Sydney, said that in his 51 years in medicine he had never seen a case of gender dysphoria. When he did a straw poll of 27 paediatric colleagues with a combined experience of 931 years, he found only 12 cases.

“Now they say there are 150-250 at Melbourne [Children’s Hospital] and 150, say, in Sydney and 100 or more in Brisbane – that’s multiples more in one year, so I do not believe that the entity of serious confusion is real – I think it is an environmental fad,” he said.

He said there is enough research evidence to show that giving children so-called puberty blockers will damage the child’s brain as will giving the cross-sex hormones.

“And as 90 per cent of the children will grow out of it, they [doctors] should not do anything with them other than be gentle and curb their excesses in the full expectation that they will grow out of it.”

In his statement, Education Minister Stokes said: “Bullying will never be tolerated in NSW public schools – whether it be because someone is overweight, gay, based on the colour of their skin or for any other reason.

“Students and parents should expect that schools are a place where they feel safe. Schools remain one of the most secure and trusted public institutions in our community. Students who are struggling in our schools, for whatever reason, need support and will continue to receive it in NSW public schools.”

The Tasmanian government has also indicated that it will not fund Safe Schools when federal funding runs out in mid-2017.

“Many schools already have anti-bullying programmes and where there are gaps, these should be addressed.” – Lyle Shelton

Conservative commentator Kevin Donnelly, senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University, applauded the NSW government’s strong stand but noted that the programme was still endorsed in Victoria and other, mainly Labor, states. Therefore vigilance was still required because of the control by what he called the cultural Left of the education system.

“The Left will continue its attempts to really take control of the education system and to enforce its ideology in terms of the curriculum and what happens in schools,” said Donnelly, who has written books on the education system, and been involved in the national curriculum review.

“So I don’t believe the battle is ever over and what’s required is vigilance and ensuring that whatever programmes are developed or whatever material goes into schools, or whatever curricula is designed, that it’s always very carefully analysed and evaluated in terms of bias and lack of objectivity and impartiality.”

He believed the reaction of parents and the public against Safe Schools had given schools an unfavourable image.

“That is a concern because there should be a very strong partnership between parents, the broader public and education in schools.”

ACL managing director Lyle Shelton said he had campaigned against the Safe Schools programme because it was less about anti-bullying than promoting the “radical and contested idea that gender is fluid and that biology is not necessarily an indicator of whether or not a child is a boy or a girl.

“This was all done without parental knowledge or permission,” he said.

He said when ACL raised awareness of the contents of the programme, “almost no one believed us. It was so extreme, the media just assumed we were not telling the truth and it took more than one year of persistence for the issue to break through into the public’s consciousness.

“The issue of transgender children is a pastoral issue.” – John Collier, Principal, St Andrew’s Cathedral School, Sydney

He urged other states to follow the NSW and Tasmanian governments in saying they would not pick up the funding shortfall from the federal government.

“No child should be bullied for any reason. Many schools already have anti-bullying programmes and where there are gaps, these should be addressed,” he said.

“Children struggling with gender or sexual identities should be given every support. But promoting ideas to children which encourage a pathway of puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones and ultimately irreversible surgery is not something schools should be involved with.”

John Collier, principal of St Andrew’s Cathedral School in Sydney, commented that Safe Schools was a “cloak for something ideological” rather than being connected to bullying.

“A school’s first intent always is to protect the child. At St Andrews we are both Christian and pastorally inclusive. We don’t think those two things are in conflict,” Collier told Eternity.

“The issue of transgender children is a pastoral issue. That is not to say we endorse the child’s decision. Many who raise the transgender issue are in their early teens before their sexuality is settled. We urge them not to get into a position of being locked in.”

“The number of those [gender dysphoria] cases is small but it’s not negligible, it does happen.” – Stephen O’Doherty

Broadcaster Stephen O’Doherty, formerly CEO of Christian Schools Australia, said part of the distortion of the Safe Schools Coalition material was to link different characteristics of men and women with a sexuality or transgender message.

“In my time as CEO of CSA we had three seminars around Australia for principals specifically on the transgender issue … and the universal response of principals of Christian schools was to say if there is a child who has a gender dysphoria issue or for whom genetically or medically there is something going on that means their gender is unclear, then our first and most appropriate response is to do everything we can so support that child,” O’Doherty said.

He said any school that had a child who identified with the opposite sex would facilitate the transgender transition in the school environment if it was supported by medical advice and evidence from the parents.

“The number of those cases is small but it’s not negligible, it does happen – it is happening increasingly in our school system; all schools are dealing with kids of this kind and, as far as I know, dealing with them very compassionately.”

He said a broad-based philosophy of care based on Christian principles was the best way for any school to tackle all forms of discrimination.

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