Page 3307 - Week 09 - Thursday, 24 August 2017

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Our Indigenous youth consistently face disadvantage and racism. In the ACT more than six per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are in out-of-home care. This is 12 times the rate of their representation in the community generally. This territory now has Australia’s highest percentage of Indigenous kids receiving child protection services, having recently overtaken the Northern Territory.

Despite lacking the regional disadvantage of other jurisdictions, the ACT is currently ranked fifth amongst states and territories in school attendance rates for Indigenous students, behind New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania. Where is a safe schools program for our Indigenous youth?

Between 2008 and 2016 the proportion of Indigenous students achieving national minimum standards in Canberra’s schools decreased in five of the eight areas measured, and the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students actually widened in six of the eight areas. Supporting the territory’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children should be a priority.

Students from other cultural backgrounds can also face racism or feel that they do not belong in schools. I was saddened to read recently about a Sikh youth being bullied in Melbourne. A group called his turban a “worthless towel” before hitting him and trying to remove it. This young man rightly considered this an attack on both his faith and his identity.

I remember vividly what it was like attending high school as a student from a Pacific Islander background. I have spoken to a number of Pacific Islander youth here in Canberra who have told me that they are not taken seriously in our schools and are expected to be good only at sports. When they are not interested in sports, they are left feeling that they do not belong in their own schools.

There are many reasons why a student might be bullied at school. Some might be bullied because they do not seem smart. Others are bullied because they are too smart or because they are socially awkward. Where is the safe schools program for these kids? Youth from homes that experience domestic violence are particularly likely to become disengaged from school. I have personally seen this. All of these vulnerable youth should be the focus of any safe schools program.

I call upon this government to broaden its scope so that we can make our schools safe and supportive for all vulnerable youth. Any anti-bullying program should focus on and be appropriate for all youth. The Safe Schools Coalition resources that have been used in some ACT schools have made those schools harmful for some kids.

We have heard repeatedly from the other side how the safe schools program is necessary to protect lives. Let me be blunt and speak from the perspective of the students whose voices have never been heard in this debate and who also deserve to be protected. I have personally met with youth in Canberra who have gone home from their classes in tears, so upset that they could not sleep for several nights, all because of the resources of the safe schools program.

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