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Study on safety of gender diverse students could be useful for schools

Prof Darryl Higgins: “Clearly, our results show that young people who choose not to identify with one of the gender binaries have perceptions of safety within their school or youth-serving organisation that differ from other young people.”

YOUTH-serving Catholic entities that work with children and young people could benefit from a recent study into the climate safety perceptions of gender diverse students, child protection researchers have said.

Douglas Russell and Professor Darryl Higgins from ACU’s Institute of Child Protection Studies contributed to research into how safe female, male and gender diverse youth, or those who choose not to conform to gender binaries of male or female, aged 11 to 19 felt at school and other youth-serving organisations.

The comparative study of 27 gender diverse students, 27 males and 27 females, who all took part in a larger Australian Safe Kids and Young People survey of more than 1400 participants, found that gender diverse students felt less safe than their peers, and experienced more barriers to seeking help in unsafe situations.

However, gender diverse students had more confidence that they could find support from adults than their peers.

The results were published in the October 2020 issue of Children and Youth Services Review.

While led by researchers from Australia’s largest Catholic university, Professor Higgins said the study was not about promoting gender diversity as an ideology.

Instead, the results, brought about by “rigorous social science methods” offered a true reflection of young people that could be useful for Catholic organisations.

“It’s about genuinely asking about their feelings and perceptions,” Prof Higgins said.

“Failing to ask about their truth doesn’t change their reality, their lived experience. 

“Clearly, our results show that young people who choose not to identify with one of the gender binaries have perceptions of safety within their school or youth-serving organisation that differ from other young people. 

“We need to flip our focus around and ask ourselves: What can we do as a school system, or other Catholic entity that works with and serves children and young people, to help all of them feel valued, safe and loved?”

Youth-serving organisations could take their cue from Christ, who offered a powerful model for welcoming all children regardless of their circumstances, Prof Higgins said.

“I love the Bible story that describes how Jesus said ‘Let the little children come to me, for such is the Kingdom of God’,” he said.

“If you say you can only be loved and genuinely included in this Church, or this school, or this organisation if you conform to a narrowly constructed social idea of gender expression, then how are we living the mission of Christ?”

Fellow researcher and former primary school teacher Mr Russell, who was the lead author of the study, hoped the findings could support pastoral care models in Catholic schools.

“As a Catholic university, with a strong history in collaborating with Catholic schools across the country, we are confident that those in pastoral care positions in Catholic schools will be able to use the study to help staff understand the important role each staff member can play in helping all students – including those who are exploring their gender identify,” Mr Russell said.

The Institute of Child Protection Studies plans to use the findings of this study and others to develop resources that support Catholic and non-Catholic organisations in protecting all children and young people from harm.

Last year the Vatican weighed into the issue of handling gender theory in schools in a 2019 document released by the Congregation for Catholic Education.

Titled “Male and Female He Created Them”, the document offers a suggestion for the path of dialogue involving listening, reasoning and proposing as an effective and positive way to deal with gender ideology.

The document quotes Pope Francis’ own definition of gender ideology, which the Holy Father has described as denying  “the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family”.

Consequently, a neutral society “leads to educational programs and legislative enactments that promote a personal identity and emotional intimacy radically separated from the biological difference between male and female”.

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