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Schools activist: bullying recommendations not good enough

Tony Grew March 27, 2007
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A gay rights activist who has been working for LGBT equality in education since 1974 has said that defeating homophobic bullying in schools will not be achieved by the recommendations of today’s report from MPs.

Sue Sanders, who is co-founder of Schools OUT, told that while she welcomed the focus on harassment in schools, without changes to the entire culture of education little would be achieved.

The Commons education committee today recommended that all types of identity-related bullying, including racial, sexist, homophobic or special needs should be recorded by schools.

The MPs said schools should record and have policies in place on all the different types of bulling and should take steps to stamp out bullying by text message or email.

Ms Sanders pointed to the strides forward taken by organisations like the police and the armed forces as proof that rooting out prejudice requires an environment where staff can be open and confident in their sexuality.

“You are pulling people out of the river but not asking why they are being pushed in in the first place,” she said.

“While I am certainly very pleased the MPs are putting a spotlight on bullying, for someone who has been doing this for 30 years, I have to say they are focusing on the obvious.

“They are asking what is happening rather than why it is happening.

“We are frustrated by people trying to deal with homophobia in a massive vacuum, as they are not tackling the existence of LGBT experience.”

Ms Sanders helped create LGBT History Month, and points to that as an example of the overall approach to eliminating prejudice and “heterosexism,” or the assumption that everyone is the same and that LGBT and anyone else who does not “fit” are victims in need of protection.

She pointed out that the vast majority of teachers, supposedly the empowered adults in a school environment, are too frightened to be open about their sexuality, and that it is just assumed therefore that all teachers are heterosexual.

“There is lack of confidence in teachers in dealing with the lives and existence of LGBT people.

“Unless there is an understanding that they have to be thinking about the entirety of the community, and include the reality of LGBT existence in all its diversity, then the MPs recommendations on homophobic bullying will not work.

“When they talk about homophobic bullying, it is that whole reinforcement of seeing us at the problem. It is turning round.

“It is like saying that (black teenager) Stephen Lawrence was stabbed because he was black. He was not. He was stabbed because of racism.”

Ms Sanders said that the experience of the Lawrence case on London’s Metropolitan police was the reason that they “have made massive strides.”

She points out that now police officers get more training in diversity than teachers do.

Gay police and gay Navy personnel march in Pride parades, something that as yet teachers do not appear to be in a position to do.

“If the adults in the school are not out and proud and do not feel the school is a comfortable place to come out then homophobic bullying will always be a problem,” says Ms Sanders.

“The Local Education Authorities and the Department for Education and Skills have not done enough to encourage their gay staff, in fact they have not even started this work yet.”

The MPs report into bullying recommends that schools should start recording the different types of harassment.

“All schools legally should be reporting racial bullying and therefore I have a real worry about the hierarchy around diversity – what about gender bullying?

“If there is a recognition that racial harassment should be reported, then all hate-inspired bullying should be reported,” she said.

Despite that, Ms Sanders said that the visibility the MPs report has given to the whole issue of hate-based harassment meant this was a good opportunity to push forward change that would encompass making LGBT people visible across the curriculum.

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