by The Revd Peter Laurence OAM | Chief Executive Officer Anglican Schools Commission
Over recent weeks, there has been extensive coverage of the issue of the sexual assault of students in schools across Australia. A former Sydney girls’ school student, Chanel Contos (now 23 years old and studying in London) has compiled an online petition calling for consent to be included in the curriculum of all Australian schools. More than 38,000 people have signed the petition already.
Ms Contos was sexually assaulted while a school student, by a student from a neighbouring boys’ school. This year she asked if other young women had experienced sexual assault by their peers from all-boys schools in Sydney. More than 3000 accounts of sexual assault, unwanted approaches and coercion have been shared by female students and former students in response to this question posted by Ms Contos, who attended an independent Anglican girls’ school in Sydney. The ‘testimonies’ are deeply distressing.
Throughout March, media across Australia canvassed how Ms Contos’ petition ‘is leading a sex education revolution’. Also last month our newspapers, TV, radio and social media spoke of the alleged failings of some of Australia’s most senior political leaders.
A number of Anglican schools have been named as the schools where young women who provided accounts to this petition attend currently or attended in past years.
One of our Principals wrote to their school community recently: ‘It distresses me greatly to read these harrowing accounts and it reminds us all of our responsibility to continue to refine and improve the education we provide our young people on the issue of respectful relationships and, in particular, sexual consent’.
It would be fair to say that all schools address the issue of respectful relationships in their curriculum. But principals across the country acknowledge that more needs to be done. Of course, it is not just up to the school. Teachers need to work closely with parents and carers as well as the wider community to ensure that students are fully informed of their rights and responsibilities in relation to all life issues, including sexual consent.
Melinda Tankard Reist recently wrote on this topic under the banner, ‘Why consent doesn’t stand a chance against porn culture’. It was published by the ABC’s Religion and Ethics Unit on March 9, 2021. The title sounds defeatist, yet that would be partially true only. Rather it seeks to make the sound point that the global pornography industry is so large that it will take governments and regulatory bodies ‘to step up and do something serious to protect young people’. Parent and carers, teachers and the wider community cannot do it all through education.
The Anglican Schools Commission’s Child Safe policies and procedures have zero tolerance for any form of child abuse or maltreatment. Our schools do an extraordinary job in putting the wellbeing of every student first. Yet still we read of stories in schools across Australia where young women have been abused by male peers or older students.
It is right that educators across our nation commit to achieving the highest standard in child protection, which starts with students understanding, adopting and practising respectful relationships with one another, regardless of gender, race or religion. We pray for all victims of abuse and work towards making our schools, homes, churches and workplaces safer for everyone.
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The Reverend Peter Laurence OAM has received a 2021 Lambeth Award: The Lanfranc Award for Education and Scholarship for his achievements in making an Anglican education accessible.