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Dispatches: Teacher Ignorance Lets LGBT Bullying Flourish

“I only read about LGBT people because I knew Human Rights Watch was coming to interview me,” a teacher in Tokyo told me last November while I was researching bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students in Japan’s schools.

A 20-year-old Japanese woman who was bullied by her classmates in junior high school holds a notebook displaying the message: “It was common knowledge that I was being bullied. It was also common knowledge that my teachers would never help me.” © 2015 Kyle Knight/Human Rights Watch

But there’s nothing specific to Japan about this problem, as a report this week from the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) highlights.

Bullying of LGBT students in schools is making headlines in the lead-up to a UNESCO summit on the topic this May. Crucially, the gathering is for ministers of education – homing in on governments’ responsibility to make schools safe for everyone.

Harassment, teasing, and outright violence color the lives of LGBT students in many countries, and is often compounded by teachers’ lack of awareness on how to address such issues.

The FRA report, based on more than a thousand in-depth interviews with education professionals across 19 European Union countries, reveals some disturbing patterns. For example, it found that, “Professionals in almost all of the EU Member States surveyed said they had no training about LGBT issues as part of their standard specialized professional education.”

On issues of sexual orientation and gender identity, a British teacher told FRA: “I’ve had literally no training at all about how to deal with it so no, I would not feel comfortable dealing with it.” And a teacher in Denmark asked: “What should I do if I think a student is… Should I interfere or not? I think we are in a standstill in relation to this. I must admit that we don’t know enough.”

So instead of being sources of information and refuge, teachers are left in a lurch – ill-equipped to support students in need.

FRA also found that teachers commonly hear anti-LGBT slurs in their schools. Perhaps most worryingly, some teachers believe LGBT bullying cases are under-reported due to widespread prejudice, while others see no need for LGBT-specific protections because they don’t know of any gay or transgender students in their schools.

Governments – in the EU and around the world – have an obligation to address these concerns, and empower teachers to make their schools safe for LGBT students. They should start with a very basic gesture: requiring teachers to learn. 

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