Sadly, homophobic bullying is as big an issue in schools as it has ever been, if not more so. Recent high profile stories in the US media have highlighted the severity of the problem, with a number of teenagers committing suicide as an alleged result of homophobic bullying.
Bullying is a complicated issue to resolve and/or prevent in any environment but in schools and colleges it can be even harder where there is no protection from employment law and contracts. So what can be done about it?
Clear policy of zero tolerance
Schools need to make it absolutely clear that any form of bullying or harassment is unacceptable. This can be difficult to maintain in an environment where students are legally obliged to attend school and are entitled to an education. But that doesn’t mean that schools cannot deal with the problem. There’s no need to differentiate between forms of bullying – bullying is bullying after all – but a school’s policy on tolerance may need to specifically mention homophobia to ensure that this remains high on the agenda. Remember that bullies that are allowed to thrive in schools often go on to become bullies in the workplace.
Training and development
Teachers are under increasing pressure to manage students’ behaviour, but teacher training doesn’t necessarily equip them with the skills required to do this. An ongoing programme of training and development is required. Teachers need to understand the psychology of bullies in order that they can address and prevent the behaviours and this needs to include specific content on sexuality. This is not something that will see quick returns. Teachers need ongoing, regular opportunities to learn and study behavioural issues. It’s particularly difficult for teachers who must also learn how to involve parents and/or deal with family issues. Employers, for example, are far less obliged and likely to get so personally involved.
Practice what you preach
Studies recognize that one of the biggest problems in many schools is that teachers are, themselves, prone to demonstrate bullying traits. A school that suffers a serious problem with students being bullied is quite likely to have issues with the conduct of staff members. Children are very likely to imitate the behaviour of adults around them and head teachers must address this as a priority. Legislative issues don’t help this where schools may be unable (or unwilling) to discuss issues of sexuality as part of the curriculum. By making this a taboo subject, schools are often giving out the message that there is something wrong with being gay. It’s hardly surprising that this rubs off on the students!
Addressing the dirty word
Many schools still demonstrate very old-fashioned attitudes towards sex and sexuality. Sex education on the curriculum rarely includes discussion of sexuality and studies have shown that where it does, homophobic bullying is less likely to take place. Many teachers are reluctant to bring the subject up in the classroom for fear of being accused of encouraging such a lifestyle. It’s true that many young people experience confusion and curiosity around their sexuality but it’s unhealthy to repress this in the classroom. Like any other profession, teachers are under pressure from a number of different directions and it can be hard to balance the demands of the curriculum against local policy.
It’s not all the school’s responsibility
This isn’t something that schools can address alone. Parents of children who are being bullied or of the bullies must be involved as much as possible. It’s important that schools enlist the support of parents, or it can be extremely difficult for disciplinary measures to work. It’s worth bearing in mind that very often children will demonstrate bullying tendencies as a result of their home lives. In serious cases, this could eventually involve the social services or even the police. Building positive working relationships with all parties is a critical, but time-consuming part of dealing with the problem. Consider setting up working groups involving all parties simply to keep this on the agenda. Local support groups may also be willing to get involved. Schools should enlist whatever support and experience is available.
These measures may only scratch the surface of the problem but over a longer period of time, such practices can make a real difference. Where children are literally dying as a result of this issue, it’s not hard to see just how critical this is.