SCHOOL DIVERSITY PROGRAM FOSTERS SPIRIT OF KINDNESS
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