Every young person has the right to education without fear of condemnation, violence and/or discrimination. Safe school environment is an important foundation for students' psychosocial and professional development. Therefore, all relevant actors in the field of education should be actively involved in ensuring an inclusive and anti-discriminatory educational system.
National policies and programs in Croatia recognise the importance of protecting youngsters from abuse and of ensuring safe school environment. However, specific programmes and guidelines directly aimed at the protection of LGBTI youth and combating homo/bi/transphobia in schools are non-existent. According to the Directives of the European Union, the United Nations and the Council of Europe, the Croatian Ministry of Science and Education and the Agency for Education, as institutions implementing national educational policies, should take all available measures aimed at integrating the content on combating discrimination and violence in schools. Moreover, these institutions should adopt strategies to end violence, abuse, social exclusion and other forms of discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression. Schools, principals, teachers and other experts are obliged to prevent and put an end to any violence, while it is extremely important to recognise its forms, react and act preventively through school content and activities. The involvement and cooperation of all educational professionals is needed in creating a safe school environment, while students and parents certainly have an important contribution to make.
Teachers, as well as school experts, play an important role in reducing homo/bi/transphobia in schools, through their direct work with students. Despite the fact that there are no programs and initiatives aimed at integrating LGBTIQ topics into schools prescribed by the Ministry, teachers and school professionals can educate themselves on LGBTIQ topics, and then apply the acquired knowledge while teaching. Knowledge of terminology, LGBTI human rights, coming out, forms of homo/bi/transphobia and related topics will enable teachers to successfully inform students and provide support to LGBTIQ youngsters. To get acquainted with LGBTIQ topics, school staff can turn to LGBTI human rights organizations and use the help of external experts. Teachers are key facilitators in reducing taboos related to LGBTIQ content in schools. For example, the topics of identity, social circumstances and human rights of LGBTI persons, teachers can explain within several school subjects such as ethics, sociology, history, civic education etc., while in classes of music history, Croatian, English or another languages they can mention relevant LGBTIQ people, their work and contribution in the field of culture, literature and art.
Besides discussing and including LGBTIQ topics in the curriculum, teachers can conduct workshops to address these topics, while practicing social skills and assertive communication. Various activities can be organised within the class that will involve all students and encourage them to think critically, discuss human rights, peer violence and abuse, and which will inspire them to question their own prejudices and stereotypes towards their LGBTI peers. In ensuring a non-discriminatory and affirmative environment, teachers need to be able to recognise defamatory speech, hate speech and violence among young people based on sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression, and to respond timely and appropriately. It is important that LGBTI youngsters acknowledge their teachers as ones they can turn to for help, advice or support. To achieve this, it is necessary for teachers to develop a trusting relationship with their students, to recognise their own prejudices, and to understand the importance and sensitivity of coming-outs, reporting violence, etc. (Guidelines for combating homophobia, transphobia and peer violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, Handbook for teachers and school experts, LORI, 2016).
In order to protect the rights and well-being of LGBTI students, it is necessary to work on creating an acceptable school environment in which youngsters can speak openly about themselves as LGBTI persons. Educators should use an appropriate and affirmative approach based on adequate information on LGBTIQ topics and the problems that LGBTI youngsters face. Gay-straight alliances (GSA), meaning student organizations that can be established within schools or colleges, prove to be particularly effective in creating a sense of a positive school environment for LGBTI students. Forming GSA by students, contributes to the visibility of different identities, to the sense of security and belonging of LGBTI students, as well as the affirmative school atmosphere. Many schools across the USA and Europe support the creation of such alliances and work systematically on the implementation of LGBTIQ content in school curricula. Examples in our schools show that students do include the LGBTIQ topic in the activities of the Student Council, in the work of various school groups or through other student activities. Students can contribute to developing a positive school environment and to the acceptance of LGBTIQ youth in schools by addressing the LGBTIQ topic in activities organized to mark specific events such as International Human Rights Day or International Day for Tolerance. Schools should encourage such students’ engagement and provide them with needed support.
In an environment where the visibility of this issue is being addressed, young LGBTI people will be able to recognize a friendly teacher or professional and will be more encouraged to talk or seek help. For example, a psychologist or educator who places a rainbow flag in a visible place in their office will let students know that they can confide in them. Leaflets and booklets with information on SOS helplines, associations dealing with LGBTIQ issues or professionals working with the LGBTI community can be placed in schools. LGBTI students can as well turn to them for information, advice, or professional help.
The school must become a safe environment for every student, which, regardless of their differences, allows full psychosocial development and realization of their potential. In achieving this goal, it is necessary to identify the key problems and challenges faced by LGBTI youngsters and, based on that, take appropriate measures to provide assistance and eliminate these challenges at all levels of the educational system.
LET’S MAKE EDUCATION SAFE AND INCLUSIVE!
The text was created as part of the #LORIIDAHOBIT2020 campaign with the aim of informing the public about the situation of LGBTI youth in the Croatian educational system and the importance of education on LGBTIQ topics in schools. The campaign includes a series of video testimonies of LGBTI youngsters talking about their experiences during formal education, and informative articles on issues of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in education. The campaign is created by second-year graduate students of pedagogy at FFRi, Antonela Pribanić and Tea Staničić, as part of their practice, in collaboration with mentors from the NGO LORI.