One Catholic school principal knows the value of an inclusive school environment, not just for students’ mental well-being, but also their academic results.
St Joseph's College, an all-boys school located in Geelong, Victoria was once rife with homophobic language and attitudes, its principal, Paul, Tobias, told The Educator.
After observing the impact that name-calling and other types of bullying was having on “very bright and high-performing” students who were within the LGBTI spectrum, Tobias realised something needed to be done.
“When homophobic bullying is rife in a boys’ school, it’s not just addressed at the kids who might be struggling with their sexual identity – it is also anti-academic.
“LGBTI students – many of whom are very bright kids – are being targeted and dumbed down,” he explained.
“What we may have ended up, had we not acted on it, is in an environment with an incredibly narrow-minded, macho male stereotype, inconsistent with our values of trying to create emotionally intelligent young men.”
So, in 1997, Tobias created a homophobia taskforce after his school received a letter from a former student who spoke about how he was bullied for being gay.
Tobias and his executive contacted a youth worker by the name of Daniel Witthaus who went on to develop an anti-bullying program called Pride and Prejudice. The program, which was trialled with some of the school’s Year 9 students, aimed to demonstrate how homophobia could be overcome at school.
“One of the most important things was about giving staff strategies to deal with things like homophobic language and attitudes. Over time we got our student leaders involved in some of these initiatives and now we’ve gone from an incredibly homophobic culture to a very inclusive one,” Tobias said.
Tobias said that since adopting strategies to deal with homophobia, the school’s overall academic performance has improved, not to mention its culture, which he said is now extremely inclusive and welcoming to all students.
Tobias added he regularly speaks with Year 7 students “at the first opportunity” to caution them against using homophobic language like ‘gay’, homo’ or ‘poof’.
“Kids are now quick to accept that’s how it is here. Homophobic bullying really does diminish a school’s entire community, and for that reason we understood that we needed to be active in this way,” he said.
“I’ve been here for 22 years, but if I couldn’t have changed that culture I wouldn’t have stayed.”
Despite these great results and an outpouring of appreciation from many parents in the community, Tobias said he continues to receive emails from conservative Catholics who claim it is wrong for a Catholic entity to be involved in the contentious Safe Schools program.
However, this hasn’t deterred Tobias who, while not explicitly including the program in his school’s curriculum, supports its anti-bullying campaign.
“The problem that any Catholic educator is going to have is when someone accuses you of promoting a gay lifestyle that isn’t consistent with the teachings of the church. I haven’t been promoting a gay lifestyle. What I am doing is ensuring that every boy at our school is in a safe environment,” he explained.
Tobias said the research around the mental health issues and self-harming of same-sex attracted young people was “appalling”.
“Given the extent of the problem we identified, we didn’t feel we had an option of ignoring that,” he said.
*An earlier version of this article mistakenly published that St Joseph's College was located in NSW. This has since been corrected.