Published: 27 March 2024

Using Harm Minimisation to empower and keep young people safe at Leavers

By By Marcus Shaw, Specialist – Advocacy and Strategic Projects, WAAC

Leavers in numbers

8,713 leavers

39 WAAC volunteers and staff

14,200 condoms distributed.

6,029 meaningful interactions

3,300 harm reduction resources and merchandise items distributed.


Leavers, also known as ‘Schoolies’ on the eastern coast of Australia, is a rite of passage for Year 12 graduates to let their hair down and celebrate coming to the end of their schooling life. Like a lot of things, WA does this week a little bit differently to the East Coast. The event adopts a coordinated harm minimisation approach led by the WA Police Force (WAPOL), making it a safer, unique and successful event.

Approximately 8,000 to 9,000 school leavers head to the South West (approximately 250km south of Perth) for a four-night celebration. The Leavers Strategy was developed out of a need for increased safety and support in locations where leavers were already visiting due to increased incidences of anti-social behaviour, drug and alcohol consumption, and sexual assault. These issues often put a strain on policing, health services and emergency departments as well as local councils and infrastructure – as these are regional locations, they do not have the capacity to handle a sudden influx of people requiring access to services.

Rather than a heavy-handed approach, WAPOL employs a harm minimisation framework, with equal importance placed on each pillar – supply reduction, demand reduction and harm reduction. Part of what makes this event unique is the prioritisation of harm reduction, a powerful but often overlooked and undervalued approach. WAPOL sees value in having the experts in each respective field supporting the strategy and contracts several different agencies in WA, including WAAC, to ensure a safe experience for all, for which leavers pay a fee to attend. The result is a four-night ‘Entertainment Zone’ (similar to a festival set up), a one-day beach party and three days of smaller outreach engagements and diversionary activities. The magnitude of this event requires a mammoth effort from approximately 12 government agencies and other organisations, 500 staff and volunteers and 12 months of planning to achieve.

WAAC has been participating in the annual Leavers response for over 20 years. During this time, we have been working closely with young people attending Leavers and have gained a deep understanding of the most important issues, trends, and priorities for young people. WAAC has also kept up-to-date with the changing landscape and contemporary needs that impact and affect young people.

What we do

WAAC operates outreach activities during the day and night with a focus on:

  • Harm reduction messaging and education around healthy relationships, sexual health, blood-borne viruses and drug and alcohol use.
  • Delivery of diversionary activities for leavers to engage in, to reduce alcohol and drug-related harm.
  • Management and supervision of the ‘Chill Out Tent’ in the Entertainment Zone. This is a space for leavers to relax, chat, and take time away from the craziness of partying. We offer a safe space for leavers to discuss all things sex, drugs and alcohol and LGBTIQA+ topics.

For 2023, we took a team of 39 staff and volunteers, divided into a day and night team. The day team worked from 9.00am to 4.00pm and the night team worked from 5.00pm to 1.00am. It is a massive undertaking for WAAC, but one we feel so privileged to be a part of as it is giving young people the opportunity to be informed and empowered. Our team is predominantly made up of volunteers who are people from varying professional backgrounds and often university students – nursing, health promotion, teaching, youth work, sexology, counselling, and public health.

WAAC provides in-depth training sessions to the team of volunteers that attend the event with our focus on all things sexual health and LGBTIQA+, blood borne viruses (BBVs) and alcohol and other drugs (AOD). We provide valuable knowledge and resources on often overlooked topics, especially regarding HIV. Our volunteers, mainly university and TAFE students, greatly benefit from receiving accurate, up-to-date information and essential skills for educating others. By empowering our volunteers as they transition into their professional careers, we create cohorts of young professionals who can educate and break stigma and discrimination within the fields they are moving into (often human services).

The WAAC Leavers Response is a health promotion program that is based on evidence and employs a peer-based, harm reduction approach. The program has been effective in reducing potential harms and successfully delivering messages on sexual health and AOD to young people during the Leavers rite of passage experience.

Strategies for engagement of target groups and inclusivity 

WAAC utilises evidence and best practice-based principles to engage with young people at Leavers, including:

  • Harm Reduction and preventive health frameworks: WAAC’s service delivery is primarily funded through the WA Department of Health (DoH) and the Mental Health Commission WA (MHC). Both government agencies fund WAAC to deliver sexual health, BBV and AOD projects, placing it in a unique position of having a specialised workforce with relevant experience, knowledge, skills and resources to support these projects.
  • Peer-based framework: Like so many HIV/BBV and AOD services, WAAC engages in a peer-based approach in many of our core services and Leavers is no different. The volunteer team ensure a like-minded and respectful unit is available to the Leavers community. Peer-based within this context refers to people who have graduated high school within the last ten years and are able to relate to the lived experiences of Leavers and while not an exclusion criterion for volunteers, our team is often made up of this cohort. Having a wealth of individual experiences rooted firmly within each member of our team, we can support young people with various needs which provides a unique and well-rounded level of support for Leavers. Additionally, peer-based health promotion efforts have been shown to reduce harms in the context of alcohol and other drug use and sexual health (Bowring et al., 2018 and Janssen et al., 2021), and are recommended to support young people in celebrating safely at mass-gathering events (Hutton et al., 2018).
  • Education and outreach through humour, fun and hands-on activities: WAAC utilises the fundamental components of health promotion principles with our education practices that encompass a variety of fun and creative approaches to address sexual health, BBVs and AOD harm reduction messages. These strategies break down awkwardness, build rapport and comfort with young people which then leads to open discussions, increased engagement, and trust.
  • Inclusion: We strive for equity and inclusion across all communities, with a strong remit and focus on prioritising marginalised communities. A strong focus and outward display of support WAAC has at Leavers is for the LGBTIQA+ community – as the lead LGBTIQA+ agency during the event, we want to ensure all leavers feel safe, seen and respected when engaging with services and the broader Leavers strategy.

Importance of what we do

WAAC receives very positive feedback from leavers throughout the week. Leavers are excited to engage with adults who are comfortable with having open and frank conversations about sexual health, sexuality, BBVs and AOD. For many young people at Leavers, HIV is not on their radar at all and they have no understanding about the virus or are only aware of outdated language and myths. Positively, many leavers are interested in learning more about HIV and what living with HIV in a contemporary society means as well as prevention strategies. By engaging with our volunteers, Leavers can see ‘peers’ discussing HIV in an objective and supportive way which can start to address misconceptions and naivety around the virus.

Often this whole interaction can come from a leaver saying “you guys are from WAAC? What’s WAAC stand for?”. The confusion in their face when you say “we used to be called the WA AIDS Council…”, you can see them thinking…’why are you here then, that has nothing to do with us?’. They then become more fascinated and engaged as you start to explain “…however due to successful treatment, we don’t see HIV progress to AIDS in Australia, so a name change was needed…HIV can affect anyone and is transmitted through…”. It is really encouraging to see – a generation that will be growing up with less stigma and discrimination held by generations before them. They walk away more aware, more empowered and more understanding than when they first approached us.

Things overheard at Leavers:
  • “What! You can get STIs from anal?”
  • “Thank you so much for giving my boyfriend condoms, he never wants to use them.”
  • “What! You can get STIs from oral?”
  • “OMG you have dams!”
  • “I am queer, and I feel so safe here and you have sexual health information for me!”
  • “When should I get tested?”
  • “What if he doesn’t want to use a condom?”
  • “This is so good; we never learnt this stuff at school.”
  • “Thank you for being here, this stuff is really important so thanks for looking out for us.”
  • “Wow, so we can actually ask you questions about drugs, alcohol and sex without you telling us not to do it?! That’s sick!”
  • “The game we did with you yesterday helped us to figure out what drug our friend had taken and we knew how to help them.”
  • “Not saying I’m going to… but if I was to take MDMA tonight, would it be ok to drink as well?”
  • “Thanks for not judging me for taking drugs, I feel like I can be honest with you.”
  • “A boy tried to get with me last night, but I said no and told him about consent FRIES.”
  • “OMG I’m taking some condoms for my friend; they really need them.”
  • “I’ve taken acid, and everything is screaming at me…can you help me.”
  • “Don’t worry I won’t be needing any condoms this week, but you guys are cool for doing this.”
  • “Wow I’m actually good at this [AOD game], I know more about this than I thought.”

WAPOL ask Leavers to complete a survey after the event, the below comments are messages from Leavers:

  • “The WAAC group were amazing and said the best possible things when you weren’t feeling good and were very supportive and reassuring.”
  • “I think the organisations who provided a safe space to reboot and relax at the zone were incredibly helpful especially for people with sensory issues who still wished to participate in the events.”
  • “[volunteer name] was amazing and so kind and helpful – loved the quiet zones too.”
  • “WAAC were amazing made me feel so safe and couldn’t have done it without them.”
  • “Incredible and absolutely amazing, the chill zone was just incredible. Every single staff deserve to be commended for their work, each night I ended up in the zone, and I felt SO welcomed and so comforted by the staff. They continuously asked if I was okay when I was having a little come down, they provided me with a warm blanket and assisted in getting me on the right bus to where I needed to be. Some nights I ended up coming back to the zone by myself, a little upset and I’m not even just saying this, the environment and amazing staff at the zone lifted my spirits SO much. You are all so incredible and your kindness will come back to you all in beautiful ways. THANK YOU! ❤️❤️❤️”

Harm minimisation is a proven and successful approach to employ and the Leavers Strategy is a perfect example of how this framework can be utilised to successfully keep people safe and well. Even across multiple government agencies and other organisations and through the complexity of the whole strategy, it remains a successful initiative that should be replicated across Australia.


Bowring, A. L., Wright, C. J. C., Douglass, C., Gold, J., & Lim, Megan S. C. (2018). Features of successful sexual health promotion programs for young people: findings from a review of systematic reviews. Health Promotion Journal of Australia, 29(1), 46-57.


Hutton, A., Roderick, A., Munt, R., Mayner, L., Kako, M., & Arbon, P. (2012). Celebrating the end of school life: A pilot study. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine, 27(1), 13-7.


Janssen, M., Okeke, S., Murray, C., Ewing, M., Lu, H., Bourne, C., & Mao, L. (2021). STI testing among young people attending music festivals in New South Wales, Australia: Exploring the client segmentation concept in the ‘Down to test’ program. Sexual Health (Online), 18(5), 405-412.