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'Schools are battling society's prejudice when trying to be truly inclusive'

In the latest View from Here column, Kai Pukarinen explains how Australian schools are coming under fire for trying to be more inclusive

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Celebrating diversity and making schools safe and inclusive places for all students is an essential element of what schools must do to prepare students for the wider world. Indeed, many schools here in Victoria are members of the government-funded Safe Schools Coalition, an organisation working to promote safe and inclusive learning environments for same-sex-attracted and gender-diverse students.

Surely no one could argue that schools should be as inclusive and safe as possible, yet recently these schools have experienced considerable criticism over their policies related to being more inclusive environments for transgender students.

Some parents have jumped to the conclusion that transgender and gay lobby groups are trying to influence their children and so they have started pulling students out of school in protest, making references to brainwashing and indoctrination.

This is a tragedy: these progressive schools are simply ensuring that they have all measures necessary to support any students in their school who may identify as transgender or same-sex attracted. They are responding to a clear problem. Transgender students have started to speak out in the press about how they feel discriminated against by traditional school structures and policies and they have called for change.

Failed inclusion

They identify challenges such as not being able to choose their uniforms, being excluded from boys and girls sports teams, use of toilets, choice of subjects, and being referred to by a chosen name or pronoun. This is exacerbated by the bullying and teasing that inevitably comes with being identified as ‘different’ in any school.

Rather than going too far, the progressive schools have not gone far enough. It is clear that a policy change is only the beginning. Measures must be imposed to protect the students from bullying and educate those who express intolerance. And schools should introduce gender-neutral pronouns, gender-diverse toilets, avoiding things such as splitting classes along gender lines, and providing non-gender teams and sports activities.

Some members of the school community are going to find these changes challenging to accept but schools need work through all of the technical details of making their schools truly inclusive.

Kai Pukarinen is an assistant principal in a special school in Victoria, Australia

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