Indigenous students skipping school to avoid bullying and racism

Ethnic and Indigenous students report racism in Aussie schools, but who are the perpetrators? Shutterstock

High-profile cases of racial discrimination on the sporting field and on public transport capture the media’s attention, but we hear less about racism in our schools.

One survey of secondary students across four states found 80% of students from non-Anglo backgrounds, most of whom were from migrant and refugee backgrounds, reported experiencing racial discrimination during their lives. These students also reported that over two-thirds of these experiences of racism occurred at school.

More quantitative data is available in Australia about the experiences of racial discrimination for children and young people from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent. In a seminar we gave this week at the Australian Institute of Family Studies, we showed that of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people interviewed, 14% of students aged 14 years and under in 2008 were reported by their carers to have been bullied or treated unfairly due to their Indigenous status in the previous 12 months. This rises to 23% for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander high school students in non-remote parts of the country.

This might not seem like a large number, but it is significant for several reasons. First, this data is reported by the children’s carers and may therefore miss a number of incidents that students don’t report to their family. Second, when extrapolated across the school career, it is likely that many more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children experience some form of bullying or unfair treatment at some point.

There is growing empirical evidence of the multiple ways in which racism is harmful to the health, well-being, educational and social outcomes of children and young people throughout their lives. It is also an area that significantly overlaps with the Abbott government’s other stated aims. In particular, the prime minister has said:

Getting children to school is the Australian government’s number one priority in Indigenous Affairs.

Experiences of bullying and unfair treatment are a significant factor in explaining school attendance. For those students who didn’t experience bullying or unfair treatment, 7% missed school without permission in the previous 12 months (according to their carer). Among those who did experience bullying or unfair treatment, this rises to 16%. In our presentation, we show that these differences still hold using more sophisticated statistical modelling.

There are many other determinants of attendance. Poor health, for example, is a key predictor of low attendance. But it is also likely to be difficult to achieve attendance targets without children feeling that school is a safe place where their race or ethnicity is not going to adversely affect their treatment.

Moreover, there is compelling evidence that experiences of racism lead to poor child health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, as well as for those from other racial/ethnic backgrounds.

There is much we don’t know about the experiences of racism of school students in Australia. How prevalent are these experiences across different geographical, neighbourhood and school contexts and for students from a range of racial, ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds? Who are the perpetrators - teachers, their peers, or older/younger students? Are the perpetrators from the same or different racial/ethnic background, age or sex?

What forms of racism are most common - e.g. overt, covert - and in what context - e.g. online, in the classroom, breaktime? How do students respond to these experiences when they occur, and how does this influence their health and education outcomes?

Despite the need for more evidence, it is still worth designing and trialling interventions that build on the evidence that we do have and that work towards countering racism within Australian schools. Such interventions should be evidence-informed and built on theoretical and empirical research, as well as rigorously evaluated. Poorly designed interventions to address racism have been shown to result in negative backlash and to reinforce and strengthen prejudice.

The current debates and proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act are complex. One thing is clear though – the act itself will never be enough to prevent and address racial discrimination in Australia.

Such laws may provide protection for the most high-profile cases. They may also have an important role in shaping long-term social norms. But, for the vast majority of people who frequently experience racism, including our school students, other policy interventions need to be considered.