October 23, 2009

KITTY HOLLAND

TWELVE YEARS of age is the most common age for a lesbian, gay or transgender young person to become aware of their sexual identity. It is at the age of 17 that a young person is most likely to “come out” to someone they trust.

These are among the pieces of vital and basic information contained in a new guide for school principals on how to support gay and lesbian pupils and prevent bullying.

The guide, Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Students in Post-Primary Schools – Guidance for Principals and School Leaders , was published yesterday by Minister for Lifelong Learning Seán Haughey and was compiled by the Department of Education and Glen (the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network).

Sandra Gowran, Glen’s director of education policy, said the guide was the first of its kind in Ireland and came in response not only to homophobic bullying in Irish schools but also to requests from teachers’ unions for such guidance.

“It supports schools in tackling homophobic bullying and in providing a safe and supportive environment for lesbian, gay and bisexual students.”

In a summarising insert, the guide advises on developing a school policy which would include reference to sexual orientation in relevant school documents such as those on bullying, relationships and sexuality, and codes of behaviour.

It encourages school leaders to “plan ahead”, advising that some young people will come out at school and guidance is given on planning how students would be supported and how incidents of bullying will be reported.

In the classroom, awareness programmes could be developed about the impact of language/ words and stereotyping.

“Staff meetings provide a valuable forum in which to discuss how the school is responding to the needs of LGB students,” says the guide.

A small team of interested staff should be resourced to progress a school’s response to issues, it says.

Ms Gowran said it was hoped that the guide would be used by principals to implement measures which would create a positive visibility of LGB students.

The guide was necessary, she said, because research found many young gay and lesbian people had negative experiences at school which put them at risk of not achieving their full potential, of developing poor self-esteem, leaving school early and engaging in self-harm.

The guide says that 16 years of age is the time when they are most vulnerable to self-harm.

Mr Haughey said schools were an important forum for delivering a society’s values.

Describing the guide as “very important”, he said the modern school was “safe and supportive of all students. As with all bullying, homophobic bullying is unacceptable.”

Clive Byrne, director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD), said the guide would be “welcomed wholeheartedly up and down the country”.

“The NAPD is committed to supporting our members in addressing the serious issue of homophobic bullying and in providing safe and supportive schools for all students.”

This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times

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