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Wednesday 14 April 2010

How safe are Otago's schools for LGBT students?

Posted in: Community
By Matt Akersten - 14th December 2009

"At the conclusion of the focus group held with queer students, participants were asked which of the issues discussed is the most important issue for queer students at Otago high schools. The youth didn't miss a beat, four of them responding almost in unison with 'bullying'.

All six had encountered varying degrees of bullying at school as a result of being out or being perceived as queer." - excerpt from Otago University Student Association's How Safe? report.

Secondary school students and teachers in schools across Otago have told their worrying stories of bullying involving both verbal abuse and physical violence against queer students in a recently-released survey conducted by the Otago University Student Association.

Hundreds of written surveys with a range of students, interviews with teachers, focus groups with LGBT young people and dozens of online/email surveys were used in the research, which was externally funded through a Lottery Grant.

"The results were varied, as they represent not only the great diversity of young people, but also the great diversity of places and institutions across Otago," say the researchers.

Some patterns emerge, however, backing up the ambitious Youth '07 survey, which was also released this year. Just like in Youth '07, Otago's research had almost two-thirds of respondents identifying that bullying and teasing is a challenge for LGBT young people, with one in ten (mostly males) specifying physical or sexual violence. Nearly a quarter said LGBT students face isolation and loneliness. Some students said their schools were supportive of gay students, while others spoke of institutional discrimination against them.

School staff members echoed the students concerns, adding that prejudice, bullying and social exclusion of LGBT young people was likely to be most extreme in single-gender schools and in rural areas. Many staff said that while students may initially be nervous about coming to them with issues regarding their sexual orientation, they were sure there were LGBT-friendly teachers at every school who would be there to listen and lend support.


Many of the students surveyed wrote down quotes detailing the verbal abuse they'd experienced in the classroom. One male from a religious school said "it's happened so many times I don't know where to start. Just like 'Ahh get away from me you fag'. Been called a poof by a staff member in front of the class. Lots of text bullying, and people taking the piss via text."

OUSA's LGBT research report
Another student wrote: "When a particular student (known to be gay) walked past, juniors yelled names such as Gay, Fag at him. In class a group of guys constantly laugh at one other guy calling him similar names and saying he likes penises and bum sex."

And it's not just the guys who are targeted. "People used to run and scream out of the girls changing room, 'Oh my God, it's the lesbo! Run! She'll rape you!'," said one student about a girl who came out.

Insults such as "queer cunt" were also highlighted by some students, but others listed "gossip" as a particular concern. "If someone does come out at our school, it's 'gossip' and it circles around the school. Everyone talks about them, even in front of the teachers and the person's friends," was one example. The victims of gossip may not even actually be gay: "My friend was in tears everyday for three months because of a rumour about her being gay which wasn't true."

"I wish the teachers actually knew what goes on," said a student who told of physical violence against gay students. Despite strengthening anti-bullying policies, 'pushing', 'shoving' and 'spitting' were examples of physical attacks on students thought to be LGBT seen by students in the Otago region.

Do bullying incidents get reported to school staff? "There's no point," replied many of the survey respondents. As one student put it: "I know of people who just wouldn't go to the teachers about things like being teased for being gay or things like that, just because they don't think that they'd be accepting enough or that they'd take the piss out of them or just not care."

Almost one in four LGBT survey respondents admitted they'd skipped school out of fear that someone might hurt, tease, or bully them for being LGBT - or being perceived as LGBT.


Almost 200 students in the Otago survey believed schools should "be stricter on bullying and exclusion based on sexuality or alleged sexuality." Many suggested the schools write sexuality, gender and gender diversity based bullying into zero-tolerance harassment policies - and truly enforcing those policies.

Otago University Students' Association's LGBT support crew
Also, it should be stressed that it is acceptable, responsible and even part of being a good friend when they report bullying they experience or witness. "Schools should not necessary regard the lack of reported homophobic bullying as proof that this kind of harassment does not go on, but should reinforce the systems by which students and staff may report bullying and ensure that students feel that they will be taken seriously and supported if they come forward," sums up the study's authors.

"It is hoped that Otago high schools make the development of safe and queer-inclusive educational environments a priority in the coming years, not only for the sake of queer students, but for all students," the researchers conclude.



OUSA's full research report on how safe Otago secondary schools are for LGBT students is now available to download from its website.

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Matt Akersten - 14th December 2009