Religious bullying in Australian schools uncovered
Pupils face ‘endemic’ bullying in Australian schools because of their religious beliefs, a four-year study of state schools has found.
The authors of the report released yesterday – Professor Emeritus Suzanne Rutland of the University of Sydney and Professor Zehavit Gross of Bar Ilan University in Israel – found that Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu students had all been teased or mocked because of their faith.
Defamation cases were highest in Sydney and Melbourne, the researchers found, after conducting hundreds of interviews with students, teachers and families in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania.
The report – titled ‘Exploring the value of religious special education in Australia’ – also showed that head teachers and other leaders were often unaware or unwilling to deal with religious harassment, and that students and families downplayed often abuse.
“It is a real phenomenon. Now the question we have to face is: are we going to ignore it and deny it, or are we going to deal with it openly and professionally?” – Professor Zehavit Gross
“I was shocked,” Gross said Eternity on the extent of religious bullying they found in Australian public schools.
“It’s a real phenomenon. Now the question we have to face is: are we going to ignore it and deny it, or are we going to deal with it openly and professionally? I think if we as that adults are not protecting our children, we are not fulfilling our duty of care.
Gross said she was also “shocked and surprised” by the “denial of this phenomenon”.
“We went to see the directors. We went to the parents. We went to the SRE [Special Religious Education] teachers. And they all denied this phenomenon.
“We spoke to the principals of the schools and told them that pupils were being bullied in your school on a religious basis. And they said, ‘No, that can’t happen. Not in my school.
“…Then we interviewed the parents. We told the parents, “You know, your child was bullied at school. And many parents said they told their children, “Please don’t make a fuss about it, because it will make the situation worse.”
“The same thing happened when we went to see the SRE teachers,” Gross continued. “We told them, ‘The students in your class were bullied in the playground.’ And they said, ‘No, no, no.’ And then we said, ‘Yes, yes.’ So they said, ‘If we talk about it, it would make things even worse.’ So, in effect, they were silencing the students instead of supporting them.
“What does it mean to live in a multicultural society when you have to hide your religion?” – Raw Zehavit
She noted that a “huge” group of students they interviewed hid their religious identity because they feared it would lead to bullying.
“It’s a real scandal. I thought that in a post-modern world, children had the right to pray if they wanted to. What does it mean to be in a democratic country if you cannot democratically choose to pray or not to pray? What does it mean to live in a multicultural society when you have to hide your religion?
The report – produced in collaboration with McCrindle Research – is based on more research from Gross and Rutland published in a new book, also launched last night, Special religious education in Australia and its value to contemporary society.
Researchers conducted 58 interviews with CRS providers, teachers, students
and parent groups in public schools in the eastern states (New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania). Their interviewees represented six major religious groups: Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and the Baha’i Faith.
The research for the book was commissioned by Better Balanced Futures, an organization representing major religious groups involved in religious education in public schools. It builds on previous research by Gross and Rutland on religious education in Jewish day schools from 2008 to 2014.
“So basically this research spans 13 years. It’s really a longitudinal study with literally hundreds of people surveyed over that time,” Rutland said. Eternity.
33% of Gen Z and Gen Y surveyed had been victims of religious defamation.
McCrindle undertook additional research this year to validate Gross and Rutland’s findings, including an online survey of 1,000 Australians, two focus groups with people of different faiths and ten interviews with religious leaders involved in education. nun in schools in NSW and VIC.
McCrindle found that one in four Australians (26%) have experienced discrimination because of their religion or religious views. Younger generations are much more likely to experience discrimination because of their religious views, with 33% of Gen Z and Y experiencing it, compared to 18% of Gen X and 13% of Baby Boomers.
In launching the report and the book, Gross and Rutland called for UN recognition of the problem of religious bullying and for more resources from our state and federal governments to address the causes. They also called for the professional development of teachers to help tackle religious harassment in schools.
“We were given examples where staff [teachers] also mocked religion. – Professor Emeritus Suzanne Rutland
“We face serious denial that religious bullying exists in schools,” Rutland said. “We have done our best to solve this problem from an academic point of view. Now we need all of you to stress to government the importance of professional development for all stakeholders.
“We have a situation of religious bullying which is different from the bullying of individual students. It’s not just students who make fun of religion, but from our interviews we were given examples where staff [teachers] also mocked religion.
Rutland notes that this professional development must include – and in fact begin with – principals.
“What’s happening right now, certainly here in NSW, is some managers are supportive but some are very anti. And this causes huge problems, for example with SRE. We heard throughout our interviews that if the principal is supportive within the school, there is a positive attitude towards religion. If the principal is not supportive and there is a negative attitude towards religion, then obviously it has an impact on the children.
“Kids will bully, but when staff don’t lead by example and support, we have huge problems.”
She adds that failing to “validate children’s religious identity” or undermining that religion is now considered by researchers to be a “form of micro-aggression.”
General religious education (GRE) and SRE play a key role in promoting acceptance of people of different faiths, say Gross and Rutland. Their book argues that religious education strengthens multiculturalism in the school community and reduces religious discrimination, while improving students’ sense of identity as well as their health and well-being, especially for adolescents.
The authors advocate a dual system of GRE and SRE in public schools: “SRE for families who choose SRE classrooms, where students will be immersed in their own religious and cultural heritage and values,” while the GRE – which covers all major religions – teaches students to have “respect for all other religions and cultures”.
“We’re not advocating indoctrination,” Gross stressed. “We advocate a reflective religious education.
“Then the students are given extensive knowledge, which is very important these days as they are exposed to fake news through the media. It is very important that they are systematically exposed to the official knowledge provided by the schools…
“Secondly, it reinforces your identity. [Students] can learn that there are many choices you can make. So it can validate your beliefs – it actually reinforces freedom of choice. It is an important asset in the post-modern world, in a democratic world, and it is important for social cohesion.
“People are still looking for meaning in this world. I do not want to provide them with indoctrination, but I would like to expose them to the canonical text of all religions. – Suzanne Rutland
To those who argue that religion should be taught by parents rather than in public schools, Gross responds, “People are always looking for meaning in this world. I don’t want to provide them with indoctrination, but I would like to expose them to the canonical text of all religions, to all the variety of options. And in this way, it allows them to explore and choose, with complete autonomy, what they want. I think it’s much better done in schools rather than relying on parents to do it at home.
Gross and Rutland made several other recommendations for “bringing RER/Religious Instruction (RI) into the 21st century” at the end of the report. These include:
- Introduce a national accreditation framework recognized by Ministries of Education for all SRE/RI teachers;
- Develop a national approach for SRE/IR education;
- Create a national approach to combat religious defamation and bullying in public schools; and
- Establish a joint assessment board for the GRE to ensure that the subjects taught provide a broad and inclusive perspective that encourages student autonomy in their religious beliefs.