My home state of New South Wales has just announced the launch of a new program designed to combat homophobic bullying in high schools. The program, Proud Schools, will be trialed at 12 high schools around the state, and will combine training for teachers with workshops for students and for parents.
It’s a welcome initiative: according to recent findings from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, high school is an especially challenging time for queer youth. About two thirds of queer or questioning students reported experiencing homophobic verbal abuse, and one in five reported physical abuse. Almost all those who suffered this abuse said that it made them feel unsafe at school. And in Australia as in the US, homophobic bullying leaves queer and questioning kids far more vulnerable to self-harm than their straight peers.
Verity Firth, the State Minister for Education and Training, welcomed the new program and explained that its goal is to change the culture in NSW schools. “We don’t tolerate bullying or abuse in our public schools for any reason. That’s why the Proud Schools program aims to replace ignorance with understanding, intolerance with acceptance, and shame with pride,” Firth said.
Firth also acknowledged that ending homophobic bullying will require the participation of the entire education community – teachers, administrators and parents, as well as students. “Proud Schools recognises that for this change to take place whole school communities will need to work together, with parents and teachers playing a key role in identifying and addressing homophobic attitudes.” To that end, the program will involve professional development for teachers. In NSW, teachers are well trained to identify and avoid sex- and race-based discrimination, but to date no such training has been implemented for homophobic discrimination. The Proud Schools program will implement that training for teachers and school leaders. There will also be workshops for parents and students to contribute their ideas about what needs to be done to combat homophobic bullying in each of the twelve unique communities where the program is being trialed.
Members of the Australian LGBT community seemed pleased, too. William Field, a 21-year-old youth worker who dropped out of two different high schools as a result of homophobic bullying, says he wishes there had been something like Proud Schools around when he was a student. “I had no idea what to do and I’d come home crying every day because I had no one like me and people were saying I was a girl,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald. “It would have been so good to have had people in school who could tell us what it was like, or speakers who could tell us what it was like, to be gay.”
It’s expected that after this small trial is completed, Firth’s office will expand the Proud Schools program to all NSW public high schools. It’s high time NSW schools had an initiative like this, and I hope that the independent private schools where, in my experience, homophobia runs rampant, will also think about implementing this or a similar program.