'Faggot, queer, gayboy, bender...'

14th September 2001 at 01:00
Homophobic taunts are a cruel and often-used weapon in the playground, and police say they encourage hate crime. Athalie Matthews reports on a project to eradicate them.

DEPUTY head Florence Hatton opens the door and hands a red card to the teenager waiting outside her office at Westhoughton school.

"I have warned you. Bullying is simply not acceptable", she tells the sheepish 15-year-old. "Two more cards and I will have to get your mum in."

At a glance it looks like a disciplinary tactic repeated daily in schools across the country. But something very different is happening at this Lancashire comprehensive. Staff here are working closely with police to confront homophobia through drama, workshops and personal, social and health education lessons.

The 1,200-pupil school has just finished a six-month pilot project on homophobic bullying - funded by Greater Manchester Police, as part of a crackdown on "hate crime". It has proved so successful that the force has won a pound;25,000 grant to take the project to another 40 schools in the area.

As a result of the initiative - which involves four hours of teacher training on how to deal with homophobic language in the classroom and a specially-commissioned play for the target Year 10 group pupils are now as likely to be in trouble for using homophobic language as they are for skipping a maths lesson.

Any pupil who repeatedly uses the word "gay" to taunt another pupil risks landing themselves in serious trouble, possibly resulting in temporary exclusion.

Anyone who think this is political correctness gone mad should talk to Inspector Cliff Bacon. He believes the project is the best way to beat homophobic crime in the long term. He argues that normal bullying policies will not help child victims of homophobia, whether they are gay or not, because they face different problems from other bullying victims.

He said: "Gay young people are much more isolated because it is likely they will not have told their parents. They also may not feel able to approach staff through fear or embarrassment. Young people who are not gay but experiencing homophobic bullying may also not seek help because they think teachers won't take it seriously."

At the end of the project the children themselves drew up their own 10-point charter on how they wanted the school to tackle the issue, which will be used as the basis for policy.

The scheme has made staff aware of the prevalence of homophobic language. Six of the 70-strong staff were asked to record every instance where a word relating to homosexuality was used by pupils in the classroom or playground.

One teacher reported the use of the word "gay" 10 times in one lesson; 49 incidents were reported over a three-week period by the six teachers. References to homosexuality were always pejorative, with words such as "faggot", "queer", "bender" in frequent use.

Staff were advised simply to tell the pupil such comments were unacceptable and refuse to be drawn into any discussion about homosexuality during a lesson.

The project has exposed the lack of guidance available to teachers on how to tackle the subject. Many teachers misinterpret Section 28 - which prevents councils from "promoting" homosexuality. The Act refers to local authorities not schools and does not - as some believe - prevent objective discussion of homosexuality in class.

Ava Tinsley,15, from Westhoughton, now in Year 11, said: "I would say things like: 'Do these shoes look gay?' or if my brother was annoying me I would say: 'You're gay'. I didn't really know anyone who was gay and I hadn't realised that it might offend or upset some people. Since the project I have tried to use it less and most other people have too."

Year 11 pupil Amber Johnstone,15, from Westhoughton, added: "While we were doing the project one of my friends told me she was bisexual which I don't know if she would have done otherwise. It has made everyone much more able to talk about it sensibly."

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