Stonewall speaks out about bullying after teen suicide

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Tony Grew

Gay equality organisation Stonewall has highlighted the treatment of gay kids in British schools after media reports about a teenage girl who committed suicide after a campaign of harassment about her sexuality.

In a letter to supporters Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill wrote:

“A number of newspapers reported the death by suicide on Tuesday of a 14 year-old girl from Sussex who had been reportedly taunted by bullies calling her a lesbian.

“Although the exact facts of such tragedies will often never be known, it reminds us that homophobic bullying affects not only young gay people but also those who are perceived as gay or different.

“Stonewall’s recent pioneering research The School Report shows that, shockingly, 65 per cent of young lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils have experienced homophobic bullying and that homophobic language is endemic in Britain’s schools.

“Thirty per cent of lesbian and gay pupils reported that it was adults in their schools who were actually responsible for homophobic bullying.

“It’s a reminder of the critical importance of our Education for All campaign.

“During 2008, we intend to work even harder with national and local government, schools, young people and many others to tackle homophobia and homophobic bullying.”

In September the co-chair of Schools OUT, who campaign for teachers, pupils and parents who are LGBT, wrote this comment piece for

The junior minister at the Department of Children, Schools and Families Kevin Brennan is the keynote speaker at next month’s Schools OUT conference.

A limited number of places are still available. Please visit the the Schools OUT website.

Paul Patrick, co-chair of Schools OUT.

This comment piece was first published in September 2007.

We at Schools OUT should be jumping up and down with joy.

In our 33 years of existence we have asked no more than that schools be made proper and safe places for the LGBT people that attend them, that they speak the truth of LGBT people’s lives and achievements and thereby counter the prejudice and stereotyping that is rife in our society and that they deliver an education that is appropriate to all.

At the end of last week the Department for Children, Schools and Families published such guidance that, if followed, would accomplish all the above for lesbian, gay and bisexual people at least.

I will return to trans later, as that is clearly the Department’s strategy for dealing with that issue at this time.

Schools OUT, however, is not jumping up and down.

Don’t get me wrong. The guidance is superb – well researched, well written, detailed, clear and for such a lengthy document easy to assimilate, understand and act upon.

We always expected great things from the teaming of Stonewall and EACH on this project and we have not been disappointed.

What then is our problem and when, to invoke the cliché, will we ever be satisfied?

When the Department of Children, Schools and Families takes its own advice seriously and works to ensure that it is taken seriously by every school and local authority in the country, guidance is useless when it is not acted upon.

All the signs have been and seem to remain that this is an issue that schools do not prioritise.

We take the publication of this guidance as a sign from the DCSF that they are committed to the lives of LGBT people and we will hold them accountable to the highest standards.

The lives and success of LGBT students and educators is dependent on their follow up to this document.

Since the earliest research into the lives and experiences of young lesbian and gay people in schools was published in 1984 – Warren Trenchard’s Something to tell you – we have known both the horrendous time that our young people face and the consequences that has for all of us whatever our sexual orientation.

More recent research, including Stonewall’s excellent The School Report, has suggested that if anything, things have got worse since 1984 with homophobic abuse at epidemic proportions and teachers too confused, unwilling or unable to do anything about it.

The results of such inaction are all too well known to need further rehearsing here.

Though I will repeat, and continue to repeat at every opportunity, the shameful statistic that LGBT young people are five times more likely to attempt and commit suicide than their heterosexual classmates – a statistic if applied to any other recognisable group in our society would have caused a national scandal!

Tackling this currently abysmal situation is not rocket science and the guidance spells out clearly how it should be done.

That, then, should be that. The situation has been addressed and analysed, the tools are here provided. What more do we need?

We need the clear and unequivocal commitment of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, in all its guises, branches and representatives for such change.

We need that this change be mandatory on schools in the way that the commitment to fighting racism is.

We need a clear injunction from the top that runs all the way through the department that the lives of children come before individual belief, however deeply held.

We need the department to put its money where its very excellent guidance is!

And do we have that? We do not!

This work should be trumpeted from the rooftops. It should be reviewed in every national daily and weekly journal as the groundbreaking work that it is and not sneaked out on a dreary Friday to the sound of one hand clapping.

We need an unequivocal message to go out to every teacher in every school.

Yet on the Department for Children, Schools and Families own Teachnet website it advises teachers that it is perfectly acceptable for them to tell pupils that same sex relationships are a sin, if that is what that teacher believes and that it is an acceptable part of a school curriculum to say that same sex relationships are sinful if those that run the school believe it to be so.

The department can’t have it both ways – it cannot seek to eradicate homophobic bullying on the one hand whilst condoning it amongst some teachers and schools on the other.

Being bullied by another pupil is bad enough, but to be bullied by a teacher or the whole school ethos is very much worse!

The guidance quite rightly points out the importance of positive role models and mentions the many lesbian, gay and bisexual teachers in our schools that could fulfil such a role.

Yet the department consistently refuses to publicly acknowledge the importance of openly lesbian, gay and bisexual teachers in the provision of an education that seeks to meet the needs of all its students and of a diverse society.

The police, the fire service, the national health service all extol the virtues of their lesbian, gay and bisexual workforce.

When is the Department of Children, Schools and Families going to do the same? Currently our schools are as unsafe for lesbian, gay and bisexual staff as they are for such pupils.

The guidance also asserts the importance of an appropriate school curriculum that recognises the lives and achievements of lesbian, gay and bisexual people as an integral part of this.

Where then is the support from the department to develop such a curriculum?

Where is their encouragement for the national curriculum to include such issues, other than in the very narrow space of sex and citizenship education.

If heterosexuality were only confined to these two small areas our curriculum would be very bleak indeed!

The department appears to be very uncomfortable with curriculum change in this area.

When Schools OUT set up LGBT History Month UK in 2004, in part to tackle the paucity of LGBT material in the curriculum the then Department for Education and Skills gave us a small grant to set up and run our website.

Unlike the Department of Health, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Metropolitan Police, the TUC and now the Ministry of Justice, they refused to allow us the use of their logo on our website and were very reluctant to be seen to have anything to do with us.

It was a reluctance that led them to stop any grant to us after two years, just as we were taking off, despite our very clear and highly successful education remit.

We remain the most successful LGBT educational and cultural celebration in Britain and survive on almost no funding and none at all from the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

LGBT History Month UK takes place every February. In 2007 we had over 800 events nationwide. We expect 2008 to be bigger, brighter and more diverse.

Finally, and most importantly, the guidance has no teeth.

It suggests that each school should monitor homophobic incidents.

Why merely suggests? Such monitoring is central to the understanding of what is happening in a school and how effective any change may be – racist incidents must be recorded by law and then viewed by the school governing body and the local authority.

Is the department saying that it is not as important to deal with homophobia as it is with racism?

Because that is what it sounds like to me and that is certainly the message they are giving to our schools.

What will happen to schools that ignore this guidance and remain places in which homophobia flourishes amongst pupils and dare I say it some staff?

The answer to that is simple. Nothing.

The combating of homophobia should be a key part of any inspection schedule as the combating of racism so rightly is.

However it is not. Support for lesbian, gay and bisexual teachers who seek to be positive role models should be in place. It is not.

The whole school curriculum should be appropriate to the needs of all pupils and a tool to develop proper social cohesion. It is not.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families should have put into place punitive measures for any school that does not properly address these important issues. It has not.

The work done by Stonewall and EACH on this Guidance is superb. Let us hope it is not wasted by a department too cowardly and unimaginative to put its money and its action where its mouth is.

I said I would return to trans issues. It should be no surprise that they were not part of the guidance brief.

If the Department for Children, Schools and Families are reluctant to deal properly with lesbian, gay and bisexual issues, they are determined to ignore the position of trans young people in our schools and refuse to address the ignorance, fear and stereotyping that surrounds trans people’s lives.

This would be very sad and predictable if it wasn’t so despicable.

Paul Patrick is Co-Chair of Schools OUT.