The Victorian department of education will take over running the Safe Schools Coalition from March 2017, severing ties with the staff at La Trobe University, including founder Roz Ward, who have been running the program for over six years.
The shock announcement about the LGBTI anti-bullying program came on Friday afternoon, with an email sent out to La Trobe staff by vice chancellor John Dewar.
Dewar told staff the government would directly manage the expansion of Safe Schools to every Victorian public high school, starting in the new school year.
"While we are disappointed that La Trobe will no longer be delivering the program, we welcome the Government’s expansion of the Safe Schools program as recognition of La Trobe’s highly-successful evidence-based initiative to reduce bullying of same-sex attracted and gender diverse young people in schools," Dewar wrote.
The contract with La Trobe will end in March 2017.
Professor Jayne Lucke, the director of the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS), out of which Safe Schools Victoria is currently run, described the news as "devastating" in an email to ARCSHS staff, seen by BuzzFeed News.
"We are working hard to support Roz and the Safe Schools Team, and to find out more about what this means going forward," she wrote.
"I know this is very distressing news ... but we are resilient and will come through this recent setback as we always have – together."
Minister for education James Merlino thanked La Trobe staff for their work and said the change would mean LGBTI students are better supported.
The existing government LGBTI reference group will gain new members and advise the department as it adopts responsibility for the program.
“Broadening the reference group to include student, parent and principal representatives, anti-bullying and education experts will further strengthen the program as it is expanded into government secondary schools," Merlino said.
The announcement caps off an extraordinarily difficult year for the Safe Schools Coalition, which has been subject to relentless negative coverage by The Australian newspaper and other conservative media outlets.
Roz Ward in particular has been targeted in many of the stories, with the Victorian iteration of Safe Schools often portrayed as more extreme than the national Safe Schools Coalition across other states.
A staff member at the ARCSHS told BuzzFeed News she feared the change was a capitulation to the right-wing media.
"It seems to me after the ongoing furore and unrelenting campaign from the right-wing media that this is a deliberate attempt to de-politicise the campaign, and in particular is being used as an opportunity to get rid of Roz Ward after all of the media-generated 'controversy' about Roz this year," she told BuzzFeed News.
"Given that the Safe Schools team have extensive expertise and a strong track record in competently delivering the program, it hasn't clearly been justified why they should not be strongly involved in the state-wide roll out of the program."
Just days ago, Ward and the three other Safe Schools Coalition Victoria staff – Joel Radcliffe, Matthew Parsons, and Mel Gaylard – posted an end-of-year blog titled "2016 in Review, Phew!"
"There is no doubt this year has been challenging but we have continued to be inspired again and again by the strength of our communities and the amazing work that continues to make such a positive difference in schools across Victoria," the blog read.
"We look forward to continuing to work with you in 2017 to make schools healthier and happier places for everyone!"
The four now face losing their jobs.
Lane Sainty is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney, Australia.
Contact Lane Sainty at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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