Mercury (Hobart) - Magazine - - Coverstory -

s the same-sex mar­riage de­bate rages and a mael­strom of con­fu­sion is whipped up by scare-tac­tic ad­ver­tis­ing and po­lit­i­cal red her­rings, the words of a 12-year-old are a ground­ing re­lief. “Ev­ery­one should be ac­cepted, no mat­ter what,” says Ste­fanie Har­ris, as if it is the most ob­vi­ous thing in the world.

And it is ob­vi­ous, but for the life of me I can­not re­mem­ber be­ing taught this sim­ple mes­sage at school. Cer­tainly not the way it is re­in­forced ev­ery school assem­bly by Gill Ber­ri­man, prin­ci­pal at Bayview Sec­ondary Col­lege, for­merly Rokeby High, on Ho­bart’s Eastern Shore.

What dif­fer­ence would it have made to some of my class­mates in the Barossa Val­ley in the ’90s if we’d had a di­ver­sity group such as the one that has re­cently started at Bayview? Would we all have been a bit kinder to the kids who did not quite fit the main­stream mould, who per­haps had learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties or whose pants were a lit­tle too short be­cause their par­ents could not af­ford to keep buy­ing new uni­forms? It pains me to re­flect that I, though be­set by shy­ness and my in­se­cu­ri­ties, could have done more to make life eas­ier for some of my peers. Why didn’t our teach­ers teach us to stand up to the school­yard bul­lies?

If only we all had the quiet con­fi­dence of Ste­fanie and school­mate Nell Hentschel. At 14, Nell has the wis­dom to un­der­stand that lis­ten­ing is the best way to shrug off the pre­con­ceived ideas that make us say hurt­ful things about others, or let it slide when others say them. “Just know­ing peo­ple and them talk­ing about them­selves helps ev­ery­one un­der­stand,” Nell says. “I think it’s a good idea to sup­port peo­ple and show there are peo­ple who ac­cept them and their choices.” The Bayview di­ver­sity group is run by school sup­port teacher Abi Roberts and school health nurse Sallyann Lees, with staff and stu­dents in­vited to ca­sual lunchtime ses­sions that pro­mote ac­cep­tance, re­gard­less of how a per­son looks, where they are from, how much money their par­ents have or their sex­u­al­ity. “It’s very much an open group, you can pop in when you want,” Roberts says. “They don’t even nec­es­sar­ily need to come to the di­ver­sity meet­ings, it’s just a mat­ter of know­ing our school ac­cepts ev­ery­one with­out judg­ment. When you come to this school every­body is en­ti­tled to feel safe.”

The term “school nurse” con­jures up me­mories of sick rooms, blood noses and grazed knees, but it was a de­sire to save kids’ lives that prompted Lees to make the switch from emer­gency nurs­ing. She was dev­as­tated by the num­ber of teen sui­cides in Aus­tralia, par­tic­u­larly in her home­town of Grafton in north­ern NSW. “We have to let stu­dents know that they mat­ter and they are ac­cepted just as they are,” she says.

When Ber­ri­man started as a teacher at what was then Rokeby High in 1998, the school had what she calls a “pro­gres­sive fo­cus”, an un­der­stand­ing that per­sonal well­be­ing is as im­por­tant as aca­demic pur­suit. Words such as “di­ver­sity” and “in­clu­sion” were not used, but the ethos of re­spect for ev­ery­one was there.

A prin­ci­pal of 10 years, Ber­ri­man, 46, has ramped the in­clu­sion work up a notch this year, in­spired by some stu­dents who have spo­ken up about their need for greater ac­cep­tance.

“We have a num­ber of LGBTI and ques­tion­ing stu­dents at our school, as most schools do, and I think for a long time it’s been quite dif­fi­cult for those stu­dents to feel like they’ve got a strong safe iden­tity within their school,” Ber­ri­man says. “Even though we’ve had a zero-tol­er­ance [ap­proach] to bul­ly­ing and things like that, I think there’s al­ways more work that can be done.”

Through work­ing with sui­cide aware­ness char­ity SPEAK UP! Stay ChatTY and the so­cial in­clu­sion sup­port ser­vice Work­ing It Out, Ber­ri­man has learnt a pos­i­tive school ex­pe­ri­ence – free from dis­crim­i­na­tion and ex­clu­sion – can be not only life-chang­ing, but life-sav­ing. “It could be the dif­fer­ence be­tween life and death. It could make the dif­fer­ence to a per­son’s men­tal health and their sense of well­be­ing that can shape their whole life and that’s why it’s just so im­por­tant,” she says. SALLY GLAET­ZER

Bayview Sec­ondary Col­lege stu­dents Nell Hentschel, 14, and Ste­fanie Har­ris, 12. Pic­ture: LUKE BOWDEN

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