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Religious bullying rife in government schools

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Darren Bark (CEO, NSW Jewish Board of Deputies – far left) and Canon Craig Roberts (CEO, Anglican Youthworks – far right) presenting signed certificates of recognition from NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet, to Professor Emerita Suzanne Rutland (centre left) and Prof Zehavit Gross. Photo: supplied

Students of faith in state education increasingly forced to hide their identity: report

Around a quarter of all religious students in government schools suffer verbal and physical bullying for their faith, with principals, parents and teachers in denial, according to a ten-year study on Special Religious Education (SRE) in schools.

Exact figures are difficult to ascertain because religious students in government schools were found to increasingly conceal their faith, but the study found that SRE classes – sometimes described as “scripture classes” – were seen by students as safe environments to disclose incidents of bullying.

Professors Zehavit Gross and Suzanne Rutland published their decade-long study on SRE in the major faiths in Australia in 2021, which with data from McCrindle research formed the basis of the Better Balanced Future report launched on 29 August.

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“We found religious bullying in government schools in Australia. Period. The question is are we going to ignore and deny it, or are we going to deal with it openly and professionally?” Professor Zehavit told The Catholic Weekly.

Incidents of bullying ranged from exclusion and verbal bullying of Christian students who maintained Christian ethics around promiscuity, alcohol and drug use, to physical aggression towards Jewish and Muslim students whose hijabs or kippahs were physically ripped from their heads. Professor Rutland was an expert witness in the recent Brighton Secondary College case in the Victorian Federal Court, in which Jewish students sued the school and Victorian government after reportedly subjected to knife attacks, Nazi slurs and other anti-semitic bullying.

She told The Catholic Weekly that verbal abuse “has a very negative impact, but can lead to physical abuse”.

“It’s a huge problem currently for our society, and it’s increased in the last few years.”
Professor Gross said that their study found school principals, teachers and parents were in “total denial” about religious bullying.

“There are many liberal, secularist, fundamentalist people who enhance this kind of idea, that religion is considered to be a primitive ideology that you should get rid of,” Professor Gross said.

“When we went to the principals and said, ‘There are students here at your school who are bullied on a religious basis’. The principals said, ‘What, at my school? I can’t believe it.’” she said.

The authors found that SRE, combined with a program of General Religious Education (GRE) could help to “multiculturalise” schools by exposing students to a range of different beliefs and practices.

Education was vital also for teachers and administrators, some of whom believe that religiosity is “equal to primitiveness”.

“There are many liberal, secularist, fundamentalist people who enhance this kind of idea, that religion is considered to be a primitive ideology that you should get rid of,” Professor Gross said.

“But if we don’t deal with [religious education] in schools we practically throw our children to get their information from the streets and the mass media – this is really a catastrophe.
“We should show them, through SRE, that religion is still a vital option in the postmodern world.” The authors also recommend Australian faith communities form coalitions to combat religious bullying and other forms of discrimination, and engage more intentionally with the mass media.

Their report calls for SRE and GRE to be brought into the “21st century” with contemporary “reflective” classroom methods, rather than “indoctrination”.

They also call for national accreditation and professional development programs for SRE teachers, as well as a holistic mixed-faith approach to GRE and an Australia-wide strategy to combat religious bullying.

The authors were concerned that without further professional development, volunteer SRE teachers may inadvertently give “ammunition” to critics of the program.

In NSW government schools, students may opt to take SRE classes in their own faith tradition or Special Education in Ethics (SEE), in which ethical and moral problems are examined through a philosophical and ethical lens.

A 2015 review of the program found 87 per cent of NSW government schools delivered SRE classes, of four-fifths of which were Christian.

Professors Rutland and Zehavit were awarded signed certificates of recognition from NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet at their 29 August launch.

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