Homophobic bullying is a prevalent problem in second-level Irish schools, according to a report published today, writes Áine Kerr.
The survey of 364 teachers found almost 80 per cent were aware of instances of verbal bullying where homophobic terms were used. Some 16 per cent reported instances of physical bullying as a result of students perceiving someone to be homosexual.
Teachers involved in the social, personal and health education (SPHE) secondary school programme took part in the three-year study, entitled Straight Talk - Researching Gay and Lesbian Issues in the School Curriculum.
The DCU study funded by the Department of Education concludes that the Catholic Church's teachings are "very influential" on what is taught about relationships and sexuality.
It identifies the church as a significant contributor to "homophobic attitudes". Researchers noted that because the church owns most schools in Ireland, "nothing can be taught in a school that does not reflect the church's view on sexuality".
The report adds: "This situation has gone largely unchallenged, but, it is now clear that in relation to State policy in key areas of SPHE, a potential for conflict is beginning to emerge."
The study, by researchers in DCU's Centre for Educational Evaluation, found teachers feared improving homosexual education due to parental and staff disapproval and a lack of policy guidelines.
Researchers said 41 per cent of teachers found it more difficult to deal with homophobic bullying in their school than other types of bullying. Among the reasons for this were a desire to be sensitive to the victim, lack of guidelines, and a fear of the possible reaction from parents, other staff and students if they were seen to side with the student thought to be lesbian or gay.
Teachers in rural schools were more likely to cite the disapproval of their board of management as a hinderance to improving their work on lesbian and gay issues than their counterparts in urban schools.
"This may be related to the fact that the board of management of a school in a rural area will often include some members of the local clergy or religious personnel who will have a higher profile in the local community," the report states.
Only 10 per cent of schools include reference to homophobic bullying in their school policy on anti-bullying, the report notes.
Principal author James Norman, who undertook the research in conjunction with Miriam Galvin and Gerry McNamara, said that homophobic terms are almost an accepted language in second level schools.
"It is the last accepted prejudice existent in our schools. We have come to a point where we won't allow racist or sexist comments but we haven't been given a language for talking about homosexuality," said Mr Norman.
When teachers were asked if their school was going to attempt to extend its work on lesbian and gay issues, 57 per cent said they believed such a development would be "hindered".
In a list of concluding recommendations, the Department of Education is urged to issue clear guidelines to schools on their responsibility to address homophobic bullying among students and teachers.
It also advises that teachers should receive pre-service and in-service training aimed at promoting acceptance of sexual diversity among students. Boards of management are advised to produce policies in their schools that incorporate both the local school ethos and national equality legislation.
Guidelines on how to represent sexual diversity in SPHE must also be drawn up by the The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), the report says.