Schools must have proper guidance to protect children who are bullied because of their sexuality, says Andrew Mellor
THIS IS an extract from the diary of Anne, a 16-year-old girl who has been repeatedly subjected to anti-lesbian taunts. Her only friend in school is John, a 16-year-old boy who receives similar "gay-bashing" treatment. Names have been changed.
Lunchtime - walking through the canteen with John. People are shouting abuse - "poof . . . lesbian". They are staring and sniggering. Probably second-year kids. When we walk into the playground Richard Murray jumps out of John's way. As we go out of the school grounds, sixth years in my register class shout "poofs . . . freaks . . . gay". In the shop Calum Ross shouts, "bums to the wall".
Back in the playground two boys shout "bums to the wall". John tells them to fuck off! Walking into the library second years and third years shout "gayboy". They stare. In the science corridor Richard Murray leans against wall, gives John a repulsed look. First years shout "poofter". A girl is pushed in front of me, leaps out my way and says, "I'm not a fucking lemon".
Period 6 (art): Lisa McIntosh is talking in a loud voice directed towards me, "She's definitely a lemon. She has a lemony look, don't you think? Freaks me out man, can't stand it. I can't stand poofs and lemons."
Walking home: Boys shouting "poof, rent boy . . . are you gay?" Not a particularly bad day.
The information sheet on homophobic bullying published today (Friday) by the Anti-Bullying Network has been produced in response to the plight of young people like Anne. The controversy about Section 28 will ensure it receives more publicity than some of our other material but makes no difference to the fact that teachers have long needed accurate information and clear guidelines.
If teachers and school authorities fail to deal with homophobic bullying vigorously, some day soon victims may seek redress in the courts for the damage to their education caused by this inaction. The law relating to school bullying is the subject of another information sheet published today.
Action against homophobic bullying in schools should be part of a general anti-bullying policy developed by the whole school community - teachers, pupils, parents and others. It should give equal attention to the need to prevent bullying and to react effectively when it happens. Our new information sheet includes a set of discussion points leading to the adoption of agreed guidelines on how homophobic bullying should be covered in the classroom.
Respect the age and stage of development of individual pupils
Let parents know that this is one of the topics thatwill be covered within the curriculum and invite discussion about this
Make pupils aware that people have a right to adopt any lifestyle that is within the law and a responsibility not to harass others, whatever their sexual orientation
Help pupils to understand that there are opposing but sincerely held views about homosexuality
Inform pupils that different societies have different attitudes towards homosexuality - it is tolerated in some and completely outlawed in others
Provide pupils with accurate information about the law on homosexuality in this country
Acknowledge the risks associated with some sexual practices and lifestyles
Tell pupils they are free to discuss everything that has happened in the classroom with their parents
Challenge any homophobic remarks which are made about pupils or teachers during any class discussion.
They should not:
Make assumptions about a pupil's sexual orientation - it may take some time for this to be established; it may not happen until after they have left school - it is something the young person must decide for himself or herself
Discuss details of their own intimate personal lives (heterosexual or homosexual) with pupils
Allow themselves to be drawn into a discussion about topics such as homophobia if they have not been supported by appropriate training.
We do not know how many young Scots are subjected to homophobic bullying. Like all forms of bullying it affects only a minority at any time but their education will be disrupted, their self-confidence damaged and may never fulfil their potential. Many sufferers are adolescent boys confused or unsure about their developing sexuality. They may or may not, as adults, have a homosexual lifestyle. Only they can decide, at a time of their choosing.
What they need and have a right to expect from schools is information about sexuality and homosexuality appropriate to their age and individual needs, and support and counselling if they are subjected to abuse. Most importantly they want teachers and other adults to accept the need to create a safe environment.
Even teachers may need to be reminded that careless use of words such as "sissy" can be deeply hurtful. By working together pupils, teachers, parents and other members of the educational community can help to create a tolerant, non-abusive ethos.
Andrew Mellor is manager of the Anti-Bullying Network, a Scottish Executive-funded service based at Edinburgh University's faculty of education. Information sheets on "Homophobic Bullying" and "Bullying and the Law" are available on http:www.antibullying.net or by telephoning the Anti-Bullying Network's InfoLine on 0131 651 6100.