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Names may never hurt,but racist taunts will

The report from ChildLine this week on children and racism (page two) sends a timely shot across the bows of all those who work with young people, including professionals in schools and in youth groups. Adults, other than victims of abusive behaviour, may be inclined to dismiss children's claims as no more than youthful hypersensitivity or exaggeration. But racist taunting, no matter how apparently exceptional, is simply bullying. Teachers may take comfort from the fact that these are isolated cases. For the child, racism is isolating.

It is one of the strengths of ChildLine, in all of its reports, that it sticks resolutely by the perspective of children and allows their voices to be heard. Of course, as its report acknowledges, racism and prejudice are not easily defined: those who experience it, perpetrate it and observe it all have different definitions which in turn affect what counts and is counted as racism.

The Commission for Racial Equality has long argued that the views of the victims of racial abuse or discrimination must always be given primacy in any investigation. It is interesting to note that, no doubt from the experiences of its members "on the streets", the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland has also concluded that a racial incident involving harassment or violence is defined by what the complainant says it is. This should also apply to those much more silent victims, such as the English or Americans in Scotland and children from Jehovah's Witness families, who have also telephoned ChildLine with tales of abuse.

The ChildLine report provides a particularly striking reminder that one of the problems faced in Scotland is the assumption that where schools have few or no ethnic minority children they need not take racial abuse seriously or have policies to tackle it. The report makes it clear that a pupil who is the only non-white child in a school is even more potentially vulnerable and staff need to be prepared to deal with the problem in just the same way as they would where larger numbers are involved.

Schools have, of course, made considerable strides in recent years to tackle bullying deploying many imaginative strategies: "tough on bullying and tough on the causes of bullying", to coin a phrase. There is no reason why racism should be excluded from these efforts. In many schools it is not, but racism presents a peculiar difficulty: the response from what is perceived as a white power structure, whether it be the head's study or the council chamber, is often likely to be seen as half-hearted. It is for that reason that bodies like the CRE and the police believe ethnic minority complaints must be treated with particular sensitivity. Education authorities would be wise to do likewise.

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