Australian Capital Territory (ACT) education minister Andrew Barr has announced a number of initiatives designed to tackle homophobia in schools.

The announcement comes on the back of last year’s release of Writing Themselves In 3, a study by La Trobe University on the sexual health and wellbeing of same-sex attracted and gender questioning young Australians.

The study reported that schools are the place where young people suffer the most homophobic abuse.

The ACT initiatives focus on improving the training of school staff to handle homophobic incidents.

Barr said well-trained staff are crucial to ensuring schools are safe environments for same-sex attracted students.

“Often it’s the case that a student will look to the adults in the schools as a first port of call in response to [homophobia], so ensuring those staff are appropriately trained is critical,” he told the Star Observer.

Barr said that policy initiatives dealing with homophobia in schools should target whole school communities.

“We can’t just have this issue focused on a small bunch of students, it’s about the school community’s response. It’s about having a strong community culture that comes down hard on the bullies themselves.”

As part of the initiatives, Barr has also announced an anti-homophobia conference will be held in Canberra to coincide with International Day Against Homophobia on May 17.

The conference will be open to staff and students of all ACT secondary schools, and will address this issue of school culture.

“I hope leaders will emerge from each of our schools who are prepared to take on this cultural change. Those leaders need to be both teaching staff and students themselves,” Barr said.

Barr said he hopes the conference will also be useful for the ACT Government to receive feedback from students on the success of the new initiatives.

Explaining that while the conference will focus on the ACT, Barr said he hopes that what develops from the discussions will be useful for school communities and policy-makers in other states and territories.

“I’m hopeful that the ACT adopting a system-wide approach will encourage some of the larger jurisdictions to look at what’s possible,” he said.

However, he acknowledged that studies like Writing Themselves In 3 show there is still much to be done.

“We have a commitment in the ACT to ensure that every student has the opportunity to achieve their potential in education and training, and part of that is a commitment to a safe learning environment. I couldn’t say at the moment that we have that for all students.”

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