A guest blog from Teresa Hughes, General Manager at Securus Software and child protection consultant
Last week, schools across the country marked Anti-Bullying Week with special assemblies, lessons and activities to raise awareness of the problem. This can only be a good thing: with almost half (46 per cent) of children and young people saying that they have been bullied at school at some point in their lives, there are clearly thousands of children out there who are suffering bullying on a daily basis. With kids now living their lives both online and offline, there is often no escape for victims.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the issues that most animates the young people I meet on our online safety courses is that of sexuality. At times, I’ve encountered very negative views of gay people. Even amongst those who recognise that homophobic bullying is harmful, it can provoke a more complex response among bystanders than abuse based on race or disability.
Given this, it’s perhaps unsurprising that those teenagers who sense that their sexuality might differ from that of their friends may not feel comfortable about sharing their feelings openly. Unlike victims of racial bullying, teenagers who are in the first throes of understanding their own sexual identity may be going through this process without others knowing. This makes dealing with bullying all the more difficult, since the choice to confide in someone about the abuse might also necessitate having to reveal intensely personal feelings that they don’t feel confident sharing.
The risk, then, is that homophobic bullying can be even more isolating for its victims than other forms of bullying. They have an additional hurdle in their way – and it can be a struggle to clear it.
This is backed up by a survey carried out last year by the charity Stonewall. Questioning more than 1,600 gay young people, Stonewall discovered that while over half (55 per cent) of respondents experienced homophobic bullying in schools, three in five pupils also said that teachers who witness the bullying never intervene. Almost all of respondents (99 per cent) hear phrases such as ‘that’s so gay’ or ‘you’re so gay’ in school’, but only 10 per cent report that teachers take any action. Worse still, six per cent of lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils are subjected to death threats.
Picture a teenager who feels certain that his or her parents would be angry or upset to discover that they are gay. If that same teenager is bullied at school – and it happens to be one of the 50 per cent of schools that don’t actively tell their pupils that homophobic bullying is wrong – then their welfare, potential for academic achievement and social development is seriously threatened. The sense of isolation can be overwhelming.
When I first joined the police, I became a target for homophobic bullying and experienced this isolation first-hand. I didn’t feel confident that I would receive a positive response if I confided in anyone, so I kept it to myself. This was a painful enough experience as a 25 year-old adult: I can only imagine the impact on a child.
It’s always seemed to me that sexuality is a continuum, rather than a categorical absolute – and today’s young people should perhaps be educated along those lines so that they can feel comfortable with their sexuality, whatever that may be. Before I met my (same-sex) life partner, I’d also had rewarding relationships with the opposite sex as a young adult. I’ve been fortunate that those closest to me have always judged me on who I was, rather than putting me in a box based on my choice of partner.
We carry our experiences as children with us throughout our lives. Schools should be at the forefront of ensuring that every pupil is able to achieve their full potential in a safe, welcoming environment, whatever their sexual orientation may be. Let’s hope that this year’s Anti-Bullying Week activities help to spread the message that homophobic bullying is unacceptable, isolating and detrimental for all involved.
Teresa Hughes is the General Manager at Securus Software www.securus-software.com. and a child protection consultant.