Gay former Mandurah High School student speaks out on Safe Schools

This article was originally published in the Mandurah Mail on 13 July 2016. 

A former Mandurah High student has urged the school to sign up to the controversial Safe Schools program after speaking out about the bullying he said he suffered there because of his sexuality.

Shane Cucow, who is now a youth worker living in France, graduated in 2004, but in an open letter and video to his old school, which changed its name to John Tonkin College (JTC) in 2012, he spoke of the “hell” he went through as a gay student.

Although he detailed the physical abuse at the hands of fellow students – which included beatings – he said what was hardest was the psychological torment.

He said he was depressed, alone and isolated and contemplated taking his life many times.

“I was punched when I was standing in line for home economics class on what is now called the Tindale campus, I was beaten in front of the English classroom, once I was chased out of the school grounds by a boy who had a stone in a sock and was brandishing it at me,” he said.

“What hurt the most was the silence, and the little things that people would say.

“The only time we heard kids talk about sexuality and gender is when they were insulting each other, calling each other gay, or calling each other queer and what I came to understand from [that] was that I was gross, I was disgusting, I was something to be laughed at.

“That’s a horrible thing for you to come to believe about yourself as a kid.”

Mr Cucow said attitudes are changing: "I’ve spent two years living in a tiny French village with my husband, and it has been a much bigger scandal that I am vegetarian, than the fact we are gay and married."

Mr Cucow said attitudes are changing: “I’ve spent two years living in a tiny French village with my husband, and it has been a much bigger scandal that I am vegetarian, than the fact we are gay and married.”

He said he was lucky to have friends who he could come out to, and then later, when he went to university, he learnt there was nothing wrong with his sexuality.

Mr Cucow called on John Tonkin College to implement the Safe Schools program, which has been promoted as an anti-bullying program for gay, lesbian and transgender students by supporters, but decried as political advocacy by opponents.

“I know that parents still teach their kids that we’re disgusting, that we’re wrong and I know those kids are going to school and they’re going to take those attitudes with them,” he said, pointing to the Safe Schools program as a solution.

The Safe Schools Coalition Australia, which runs the program, said on its website  it offers a “suite of free resources and support to equip school staff with knowledge, skills and practical ideas to create safer and more inclusive school environments for same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse students, staff and families”.

But executive director of the Education Standards Institute Dr Kevin Donnelly, who recently reviewed the Australian school curriculum, said the Safe Schools program was about “promoting a radical view of gender and sexuality”.

“While those students who identify as LGBTI should not be unfairly discriminated against or victimised it is clear that the Safe Schools Coalition is more about advocacy than simply making schools safer places,” he told Fairfax Media earlier this year.

The program was reviewed and altered by the Turnbull government, which has refused to commit funding to it beyond 2017.

However, state Labor leader Mark McGowan has promised to fully fund Safe Schools from the Western Australian education budget.

Rhys Williams, 2015 Young Western Australian of the Year and chair of John Tonkin College’s school board, welcomed Mr Cucow’s decision to speak out.

Chair of John Tonkin College's school board Rhys Williams said the school would work with the community on a program to support LGBTI students. Photo: Charli Newton.

Chair of John Tonkin College’s school board Rhys Williams said the school would work with the community on a program to support LGBTI students. Photo: Charli Newton.

“I admire Shane’s courage, and I’m really grateful to him for sharing his personal story as a way of shining a light on what is a big issue for many young people in our community and communities across Australia,” he said.

“We’re really keen to continue to build on what is a safe and accepting school culture at JTC, and are keen to work with the community to make sure we can create the best foundation for our students on all fronts.”

Mr Williams said instead of implementing Safe Schools, he believed a program designed with the local community would work best.

“Given the strength of the youth services in the region, I think an opportunity exists for our Mandurah schools to work with local agencies and other stakeholders to roll out programs that directly reflect the needs of our young people,” he said.

“There is plenty of evidence to show us that community development programs are more effective when they’re locally driven based on the context of a community’s needs, as opposed to more generic national programs.”

Education Department executive director Lindsay Hale said public schools were inclusive places for all students, and school staff provided support to any student who needed it.

The department’s Equal Opportunity, Discrimination and Harassment Policy encourages principals to work with school psychologists regarding students’ sexual identity, where needed, on a case-by-case basis.

He said WA public schools take the issue of bullying very seriously and have strong anti-bullying policies.

“Each school has its own plan for preventing and managing bullying. I encourage students and their parents to talk with their school staff if they are experiencing any form of bullying,” Mr Hale said.

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