Students are leading the charge against homophobic and transphobic bullying in some Australian schools where just one in five LGBTI students feel supported, a recent report found.

The National Safe Schools Symposium last Saturday drew approximately 120 people, including students, teachers, academics and health workers who shared the work happening around the nation to improve the school experiences for same-sex attracted students.

Grass-roots initiatives were showcased, such as the increasingly popular Wear It Purple Day campaign and local gay-straight alliances started by students in schools.

In 2010, the national Writing Themselves In 3 report found one in five students attended a school that they felt was, in the main, supportive or very supportive of their sexuality.

Examples of larger structural change, like South Australia’s mandatory policy that schools must have an LGBTI plan in place, the NSW Proud Schools pilot currently being trialled and Safe Schools Coalition Victoria’s work with local schools, were also discussed.

In north-west Melbourne, students started their own gay-straight ally group.

Keilor Downs College student Emma Moss, 16, was one of the group organisers who shared their experience at establishing a straight-gay ally group.

“We knew lots of our friends, who are older than me, they started to come out and we felt they needed a safer environment,” Moss told the Star Observer.

“We were really prepared for negativity, we had these comments to be prepared and we didn’t get it at all.”

Assistant principal Linda Maxwell said Keilor Downs already fostered an anti-bullying culture but admitted she had her own reservations about such a group.

“My first reaction was we had too much on our plate… there were no overt problems, kids weren’t getting beaten up, kids weren’t getting called names,” Maxwell said.

“The final thing was the kids said ‘well, it’s not negative but it’s also not positive and proactive and that’s what turned it around.’”

The college received funding from the Brimbank City Council for more inclusive measures.

Initially the group had started to create their own objectives but they found the Safe Schools Coalition Victoria had already established a plan for schools.

“Kids are ready, it’s a different generation, these kids are brave and strong and determined,” Maxwell said.

“The biggest thing that teachers need to learn is get out of their way… we haven’t had a single negative reaction.”

Students from Melbourne’s Reservoir High School presented their efforts as the pilot school for the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission’s Fair go, sport! program.

The students have been actively promoting a safer environment for LGBTI students to play sports at school, celebrating events like International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO).

NSW Student Welfare Directorate leader Kate Lovelace, who has been working on the NSW Proud Schools pilot, summed up the conference:

“A couple of people have talked about ‘it gets better’ and also young people talk about it getting better after school… as an educator that really stings, I find it quite distressing that young people are saying that,” she said.

“This may be a bit idealistic but I think what we’re here about, and what Proud Schools is about is that it’s really important that we want people to say ‘it’s better at school, it’s better now at school,’ and they are feeling safe and supported and they are included and happy at school.”

The symposium was organised by the Foundation for Young Australians.

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