Warning for readers: This article contains graphic language.

The South Australian Department for Education is investigating a presentation delivered to year 9 girls in a regional high school that allegedly referenced bestiality as being accepted by the LGBTQIA+ community.

Female students said teachers at Renmark High School told them to leave their lessons and attend a presentation in a separate classroom.

Students who attended the presentation on March 22 say two staff from the Headspace centre in the neighbouring town of Berri introduced a “third-party” presenter who facilitated an hour-long presentation focused on relationships.

Parents said they were not notified about the presentation, nor was it consented to.

Students said they were left unsupervised for the duration of the presentation.

Student Courtney White, 14, said she felt confused and blindsided by the presentation.

“We had a teacher that told us to grab a chair and sit in front of the board, and then the Headspace people came in and then [the teacher] left, so then we’re sitting in front of a board alone with no teachers, just the Headspace people,” she said.

“The first slide of the PowerPoint on the board was ‘You can see queerly now’ and ‘No point hiding.'”

Nicki Gaylard has unenrolled three of her children from Renmark High School, including Courtney White.(ABC News: Amelia Walters)

Girls felt ‘really uncomfortable’

Fourteen-year-old Emelia Wundenberg said the presenter was graphic when referencing their own sexual preferences and spoke in sexually explicit terms about growing up and being confused about whether they idolised people of the same gender or wanted to be intimate with them.

Students say they were then given an explanation of the initialism LGBTQIA+, with each word and its meaning displayed on the screen.

“There was a slide for what the ‘plus’ means, and they just started randomly saying words that no-one knew, like bestiality,” Emelia said.

“It was on the board when they were showing what the ‘plus’ meant.”

The students said bestiality was then explained in detail and the presenter seemed to imply it was something practised by people who identified as LGBTQIA+.

“They said [the queer community] just accepts all of it, even though … isn’t it illegal?” Emelia said.

As the talk went on multiple girls, including Courtney, began to feel uncomfortable and asked to leave the classroom to “go to the bathroom”.

“We’re all just sitting there like, ‘What the hell? What are we doing here? Why are we learning about animals having sex with humans?'” she said.

“It was really disgusting, it was really uncomfortable.”

Emelia said many of those who asked to leave the classroom did not return.

When the ABC sought comment from the presenter a response was sent on the person’s behalf asking that reporters refrained from reaching out or naming them in its coverage.

Renmark High School says an internal review is being conducted.(ABC Riverland: Sophie Landau)

‘Normal procedure’ not followed

Letters seen by the ABC that were sent to parents on behalf of Renmark High School principal Mat Evans stated that the presentation was meant to discuss “respectful relationships”.

The letter acknowledged that the school’s “normal procedure for notifying parents ahead of specific presentations was not followed”.

Mr Evans said the third-party presenter had “been suspended from department schools while the department undertakes an investigation”.

“We are undertaking an internal review to ensure that processes around such notifications and procedures with regard to third parties attending at our school are always met,” he said.

The ABC contacted the Department for Education, which provided a similar statement and said the presentation was being investigated.

SA education department chief executive Martin Westwell said the presentation was “unacceptable” and “shouldn’t have happened”.

Speaking with ABC Radio Adelaide on Thursday, Professor Westwell said conversations about sexual health, societal norms, stereotypes and sexuality were normal parts of the Australian curriculum, but the presentation at Renmark High School was not.

“The core idea that students should understand sexuality and other sexualities is, I think, really important — but the way [the presenter] went about it was unacceptable,” he said.

“The school has clearly made some mistakes.

“There should have been a teacher in the room when that occurred, but there wasn’t and the principal has apologised for that.

“They hadn’t reviewed the content.

“There was a few things that went wrong and it ended up with this inappropriate language and a few things being discussed in that session that were just not appropriate.”

Support being provided to students

Headspace’s national head of clinical leadership Nicola Palfrey said the organisation was aware of concerns raised by members of the Renmark community.

“We take all feedback very seriously and are reviewing how we can support and guide Headspace centres … to ensure presentations they facilitate or deliver are aligned with evidence and best practice and are safe and appropriate for young people,” she said.

FocusOne Health Board chair Ian Gartley said the “focus at Headspace Berri, operated under licence by FocusOne Health, is on the mental health and wellbeing of young people”.

“We are aware of concerns raised by local members of the Renmark community following a presentation delivered by a lived experience speaker that Headspace Berri facilitated at Renmark High School,” he said.

“Our priority right now is ensuring that any young people and their families who may be experiencing distress receive the support they need.”

All parties involved in the alleged incident declined to provide the presentation to the ABC.

Following the presentation, a follow-up letter seen by the ABC was sent to parents offering counselling services from the education department, which had arranged a social worker to attend the school to help support affected students.

Kristy Fyfe says the presentation her daughter Emelia Wundenberg attended did a “huge disservice” to the queer community.(ABC News: Timu King)

Parents express shock and outrage

Parents of students who attended the presentation said it was a poor representation of the queer community and had raised many concerns about the school’s protocols for third-party presentations.

“Who vetted this material? Who made sure it was safe for 14- and 15-year-old girls? Some of them are still 13,” Emelia’s mother Kristy Fyfe said.

“It has done a huge disservice to the [queer] community.”

Following the presentation, Courtney’s mother Nicki Gaylard removed her three children from Renmark High School. 

“My kids are in limbo,” she said.

“They’re not in an education department at this point.

“I’m not putting them anywhere until I know this won’t happen again.

“Under no circumstances should a child in that school ever feel trapped and unsafe without someone with their certificate, meaning a teacher.”

The ABC has spoken to five other parents whose children attended the presentation.

They substantiated the two girls’ claims.

Mel Brush (left) and Eleonora Bertsa-Fuchs are passionate about queer-inclusive education.(Supplied: Let’s Talk About X)

LGBTQIA+ educators condemn ‘slur’

Sexuality educators and LGBTQIA+ inclusion advocates Mel Brush and Eleonora Bertsa-Fuchs conduct consent and queer inclusion training for schools, parents and workplaces via their social enterprise Let’s Talk About X.

Both are secondary teachers and Mx Bertsa-Fuchs said queer education was important but should be delivered in a safe and appropriate setting.

“The teachers are the people that these young people have a relationship with, that they are familiar with, that they’re comfortable with,” Mx Bertsa-Fuchs said.

“When you’re in a vulnerable situation, like a respectful relationships workshop or seminar, there should be someone in the room that you are familiar with.”

Mx Brush said the alleged use of the word bestiality in the presentation was damaging to the queer community.

“It’s pretty shocking to think about that term being thrown around like that, especially given how loaded it is, and for a historical context of the way that it’s been used as a slur and to discriminate against LGBT+ people,” Mx Brush said.

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