Religious bullying in the school playground and how to combat it

12 October 2022
New report and book explores need for religious education
Religion-based bullying is increasing in Australian schools. A new book and report urge school principals to value religious education programs to promote intercultural understanding.

Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Christian school students in Australia are experiencing increasing bullying and discrimination in locker rooms, playgrounds and classrooms, a new report suggests, with children who followed religions with outward symbols the being the most targeted.

Students reported being bullied for wearing a hijab or being subjected to Nazi salutes and highly offensive antisemitic slurs online or in graffiti. Antisemitic bullying also included throwing money on the ground and asking Jewish students to pick it up, the report called Exploring the Value of Special Religious Education in Australia found.

Commissioned by Better Balanced Futures, the report involved 58 interviews with students and their families, and teachers from all major faith groups over four years in Melbourne and Sydney, and is based on a book by Professor Emerita Suzanne Rutland, who served for many years as the Chair of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies in the School of Languages and Cultures, and honorary associate Professor Zehavit Gross from Bar-Ilan University in Israel. It also draws on research undertaken by the social research firm, McCrindle, in 2022.

The report urges the importance of Special Religious Education/Instruction (SRE/RI), known colloquially as scripture classes, to improve understanding and respect toward religious diversity and cultural practices.

“We need to bring religious education into the 21st century and create safe spaces for students,” said Professor Rutland.

suzanne rutland receiving a certificate of excellence

Professor Suzanne Rutland was presented with a Certificate of Honour from the NSW Government for her outstanding scientific contribution to Religious Education in Australia. Presented by Darren Bark, CEO NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.

The book, Special Religious Education in Australia and its Value to Contemporary Australia, was published by Springer, a leading academic publisher, and launched at the Alphacrucis College, a multidisciplinary Christian school, in Paramatta.

The authors also received Certificates of Honour from the NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet for their outstanding scientific contributions to Religious Education in Australia awarded by the Darren Bark, NSW Jewish Board of Deputies CEO, on behalf of the Premier last month.

Religious bullying in the playground

Professors Gross and Rutland found religious bullying in the playground affects students from four major faith groups: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism. The authors argue that SRE/RI can help students deal with religious bullying in the playground.

In an earlier study, Professors Gross and Rutland found that Jewish students described these classes as a ‘safe place’ because of the antisemitic/religious bullying they experienced in the playground.

“The failure of principals and schools to acknowledge this growing problem through either denial or victim blaming has a negative effect on social coherence and intercultural understandings in Australia,” said Professor Rutland.

Countering religious bullying

Professor Gross arrived from Israel in September for the launch of the book and the report. She spent 10 days with Professor Rutland participating in meetings with key leaders from the four faith groups, including a meeting with the Hindu Council of Australia and a visit to the Sydney Islamic College, developed by Sheikh Shady Alsuleiman who is head of the Australian Muslim Imams Association.

After the book launch the academics travelled to Canberra for meetings and also met with Chris Minns, leader of the NSW Opposition Labor Party.

“These meetings were important in discussing religious bullying and antisemitism in the playground and ways to counter it,” Professor Rutland said. “In addition to education and monitoring online, we need to build coalitions if we wish to be able to successfully counter religious and antisemitic bullying in the playground.”

Mr Murray Norman, CEO of Christian RE, recognised the importance of creating a multifaith coalition which he established in Better Balanced Futures, which represents the major faith groups involved in public school religious education.

Mr Norman said: “One of the strengths of Australia is our multicultural society that brings together people from all parts of the world.”

“This book covers the significant benefits of allowing students to learn about their own faith and the beliefs of others through religious education, and also the importance of teaching respect and addressing religious vilification and bullying with positive strategies for restoration and growth.”

Darren Bark, CEO of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, also played a key role in assisting with the visit.

Declaration: This report was commissioned by Better Balanced Futures, which represents the major faith groups involved in public school religious education. Top photo: Unsplash

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