School Bullying - Dan Neville TD
Deputy Dan Neville: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this important matter, the need to combat homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools. Last December, while calling on governments around the world to take steps to combat homophobic bullying, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, declared that homophobic bullying was a moral outrage, a grave violation of human rights and a public health issue. It is also a loss to the entire human family when promising lives are cut short. The programme for Government commits the Government to encourage schools to develop anti-bullying policies and, in particular, strategies to combat homophobic bullying and to support students.
In May 2011, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, announced the establishment of a working group comprising all the relevant sections of his Department, along with the NGOs involved in this area and the education partners, to help draft a roadmap for the elimination of homophobic bullying from our schools.
Homophobic bullying has been documented as one of the most pervasive forms of bullying in Irish schools. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual young people experience a much higher level of bullying than other young people. Irish research shows that homophobic bullying is a significant cause of suicide, self-harm and other severe mental health difficulties among young people. The statistics show that two out of five Irish teachers find homophobic bullying more difficult to address than other forms of bullying. The anti-bullying research centre in Trinity College, Dublin, found that 16% of all Irish second level students were the targets of bullying. The major study, Supporting LGBT Lives, funded by the HSE national office for suicide prevention, found that among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people the figures were even higher with 50% having experienced verbal homophobic bullying; 40% having been verbally threatened by fellow students; 25% having been physically threatened by their peers; and 34% having heard homophobic comments from their teachers. Four out of five Irish teachers are aware of homophobic bullying in their schools and research also shows that only one in five LGBT young people in Ireland who are experiencing homophobic bullying seek support from their schools or teachers.
The impact on the mental health of young people is severe. Research shows that 27% of LGBT people have self-harmed and 50% of LGBT people under 25 years have seriously thought of ending their lives. A total of 20% of LGBT people under 25 have attempted suicide. One in five has attempted suicide. It is also known that most lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual young people know their identity at 12 years of age but do not tell anyone until they are 17 years of age. This five-year period corresponds to the period in second level education. As well as avoiding school and leaving education altogether, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual young people at this age are particularly vulnerable to self-harm and attempted suicide. I await the Minister of State's response.
Deputy Sean Sherlock: I thank Deputy Neville for raising this issue. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the very serious issue of bullying. Tackling the issue of bullying, and in particular homophobic bullying in schools, is a key commitment in the programme for Government. Bullying can ruin a young person's enjoyment of some of the most important years of his or her life and in some cases can have tragic consequences.
Deputy Neville summed it up when he spoke about the pervasive nature of this form of bullying. It can act as a barrier to a young person having equal access to education. I note that Deputy Neville referred to the document drafted by GLEN, the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network. I am to meet with that organisation's chair, Mr. Kieran Rose, shortly so that we can drive an agenda that speaks to the concerns raised by Deputy Neville.
Research has shown that, unfortunately, homophobic bullying is a problem in Irish schools, and a correlation has been found between homophobic bullying and serious mental health difficulties such as suicide. That is one of the reasons the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, convened an anti-bullying forum recently, on 17 May, to explore ways to tackle the serious problem of bullying in schools. That date, 17 May, marked the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia.
The forum, which was well attended and thought-provoking, considered issues around all forms of bullying including homophobic bullying, cyber bullying and racist bullying. There were a range of speakers at the forum, which included contributions from officials of the Department of Education and Skills, and from an acknowledged academic in the field of anti-bullying. There were also contributors from the school sector, including the various perspectives of school principals, parents and pupils. The objective was to explore with all the relevant stakeholders how best to tackle bullying in schools. A further objective was to consider what changes or updating of existing practices and procedures are required to achieve this, having regard to what is feasible to implement in the current financial climate.
The outcome of the discussions at the forum will provide an opportunity to set out a roadmap on how best to tackle all forms of bullying in our schools. A considerable amount of work to address the issue of bullying in schools has been done by State agencies and NGOs, such as GLEN and BeLonG To. We need to address how we can deepen the impact of the measures that are already in place and also strengthen the culture of awareness in schools. The work of the forum and any recommendations from it must be cognisant of the current difficult and challenging budgetary environment.
The Minister, Deputy Quinn, has also established a working group on tackling bullying. The outcomes, recommendations and submissions from the forum will assist the working group in its deliberations. The first phase to be addressed by the working group will be homophobic bullying. There will be an opportunity for all interested stakeholders to submit their views in writing. Students, teachers, parents and all other interested parties are invited to submit their views on this important topic by 29 June 2012.
Deputy Neville has taken a strong lead on this issue. If we continue to engage in fora such as this one, we will be able to shed more light on the issue, thus having the required beneficial outcomes. We all believe that bullying is an issue we can address by sharing our experiences and working together to produce an effective response.
Deputy Dan Neville: I welcome the Minister of State's response. I also welcome the fact that the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, has recently convened an anti-bullying forum. Over a 15-year period, the Irish Association of Suicidology has identified bullying in schools as a serious issue concerning mental well-being, suicide, attempted suicide and self harm. It is a real issue within the school system, so it is urgent to have more than guidelines within the education sector.
There is a mixed reaction among schools. Some schools are very good at identifying the problem and dealing with it while others are moderate. Some are very bad in this respect. I have met teachers who are interested in this matter but are very frustrated by the attitude of principals who may ask, "How many points will this approach obtain for the student?" There is a lack of understanding in this regard.
I also know that some school principals have attended the programmes run by the Irish Association of Suicidology and they do excellent work in promoting this area. I will finish by quoting President Higgins who recently spoke about the appalling, destructive reality of homophobic bullying. He said, "These are important issues, not merely emotional issues". I would like to congratulate GLEN on the work it is doing, the information it is gathering and the research it is undertaking to raise the profile of this serious issue.
Deputy Sean Sherlock: I thank the Deputy for his input. It is important to acknowledge the work that is already being done by the Department of Education and Skills to combat and prevent bullying. The inspectorate provides help to schools by supporting, advising on and evaluating anti-bullying measures. This is done through the primary and post-primary school evaluation process, and through the social, personal and health education subject inspections. There are therefore a wide range of services in that area.
I note Deputy Neville's point about some schools being willing to engage in anti-bullying programmes while others are less so. If there is a submission to that effect coming through this process, the Department of Education and Skills should take it on board in order to have a qualitative outcome to this issue. Ultimately, the more educated we all are as citizens about this matter, the more it will be clarified and demystified. The more normalised our culture becomes around this issue, the less pervasive it will be. If we can change a culture we can then modify behaviour positively. I note Deputy Neville's points and I hope there will be some mechanism to address the lack of engagement by some schools on this matter.