There were very few cases of physical abuse of pupils by classmates who thought they were gay or lesbian, but more than half the 238 surveyed primary principals said they had dealt with homophobic bullying.
The study was conducted by Dublin City University’s National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre (ABC) in 2014, before last year’s marriage equality referendum.
Their report in the Irish Educational Studies journal says there is no commonly agreed definition of homophobic bullying in schools here. The ABC defined it for principals as using terms like ‘queer’, ‘faggot’, ‘gay’, or ‘lesbian’ in a negative sense, or using them along with other aggressive or negative behaviour.
Between 61% and 65% of them had cases of pupils using words like these in the previous school year, to either label other children’s behaviour or describe things they do not like.
But only 57% had spoken to pupils about their casual words of those terms, including one in nine school leaders who had to do so on a weekly basis, or once or twice a month. And just one in six principals said they had dealt with an incident they themselves would describe as homophobic bullying, and fewer still had spoken to a class (14%), to a staff meeting (7%), or told the school board (6%) about such an incident in the past year.
Just 4% had dealt with an incident of physical abuse linked to perceptions of being gay or lesbian. But twice that number reported an incident involving text messaging or social networks and homophobic bullying, showing a possible need for more focus in primary schools on internet safety and social media use.
The study authors — former principal Gerard Farrelly and ABC researchers James O’Higgins Norman and Michael O’Leary — said some principals’ comments raise the issue of homophobic language being dismissed too lightly, or homophobic bullying being considered irrelevant in primary schools.
“Words such as ‘gay’ are used as derogatory terms but children are only repeating words heard without fully comprehending their meaning,” one principal wrote.
The authors said that, if principals do not recognise homophobic bullying as an issue worth addressing, their values can effect how a school deals with it.
“It is clear from our findings that further education and training for school leaders on the topic is required as we are at risk of them contributing further to the many silences that surround the topic in primary schools,” Mr O’Higgins Norman said.
He previously linked an “overarching silence” dominating Irish second-level schools on the issue to a lack of leadership from principals and school boards.
Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone said she was “deeply concerned” by the issue and more work needs to be done.
“It was three years ago that schools were asked to put anti-bullying policies in place, so clearly the fact that it is going down to primary school level deeply upsets me,” she said.