Meet the Catholic principal standing up for Safe Schools

Originally published in the July 2016 edition of Australian Teacher Magazine 

The first email took him by surprise. Then the letters and the cards started to roll in, lining his office. It was the first term of 2016 and Paul Tobias of St Joseph’s College Geelong had just taken a rather radical stance for a Catholic principal – he had defended the Safe Schools program. The last thing he expected was a thank you from the community.

“I had dozens of cards and letters from parents just being amazingly supportive and saying that’s why they sent their son here,” Tobias tells Australian Teacher Magazine.

“I couldn’t believe the number of emails I had from people around the state … just saying keep being outspoken because those people need the support.”

Having been principal at St Joseph’s for the past 17 years, Tobias rejects the idea that you cannot be “authentically Catholic” if you take a stand against homophobia.

“If we believe in a creator God and that all of the people we educate here are made in the image and likeness of God, it just seems to follow to me that you protect their uniqueness and their individuality.”

While Tobias wrote to federal and state governments to defend funding for the Safe Schools program, which aims to stamp out bullying of LGBTI students, he also had a few suggestions of his own – including putting the focus on diversity rather than sexuality.

“I wonder sometimes as a consequence of trying to address and understand everyone on the LGBTI spectrum … that the Coalition provides critics with the perception of the original purpose of Safe Schools as being hijacked.

“I joined the program in a way or our community did, to stand in solidarity with a group of incredibly marginalised young people.”

At St Joseph’s, Tobias is well known for standing alongside those who need support. Taking over as principal in 2000 at a time where the community was still reeling from horrific revelations that several paedophiles had once been active at the school, he made a controversial public apology on behalf of the college.

“Some people were saying ‘look just leave it alone, it’s history’ and others were saying ‘no, it would be a good thing to do’,” Tobias says. “I think we might have been the first Catholic institution to do that.”

Tobias also opened his office to anyone who wished to discuss what had happened.

“A lot of people took up that opportunity,” he says. “I found that really emotionally difficult but also kind of privileged work and important work.”

Still, Tobias knew that wasn’t enough. He had to change the school culture too.

“When I came, it was an incredibly homophobic environment and a fundamentally kind of anti-academic environment, whereby we had a sort of reinforcement of a very narrow male stereotype.”

No small thing for a first time principal to shift.

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St Joseph’s College in Victoria, headed by principal Paul Tobias, is the only mainstream Catholic school in Australia supporting Safe Schools.

In 1997, Tobias set up an anti-homophobia taskforce of concerned teachers to combat the problem, joining with a local councillor to deliver a tailor-made program called ‘Pride and Prejudice’.

“…When you’ve got a homophobic culture you’ve also got problems with your staff as well as with your students,” Tobias says. “If homophobic bullying is rampant in a boys school … you finish up with really everyone being diminished because you finish up producing emotionally unintelligent young men and often those people are not capable of having successful heterosexual relationships either.”

While there were times Tobias admits he feared they “weren’t getting anywhere”, eventually they saw results. Today, St Joseph’s is remarkably different to the school he first walked into.

“And thank God for that!” he says. “We’ve been able to win the confidence of the community back.”

Now in his final year at the school, with plans to retire growing closer with every school bell, Tobias says it’s the “incidental interactions with students” that mean the most to him.

He speaks of a student who fought cancer all throughout his time at the college, before passing away in the year following graduation. He talks of his humour and intelligence, of hospital visits, meetings with the family. He is just one of the many students at the college who have left a deep mark on the principal.

Now with a building newly named in his honour, Tobias is leaving behind one of his own. And he’s confident the change he has brought to St Joseph’s will carry on when he takes his leave.

“The biggest disservice I could have done the school would be that whatever’s been put in place collapses when I retire … but I’m absolutely confident in the calibre of the staff that I’ve employed over the last 17 years, that none of that momentum will be lost because those people have shared the vision, they’ve been part of it.”

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