On the International Day Against Homo- and Transphobia (IDAHOT), activist Bruno De Lille calls on schools to make real work of equality and inclusion for all. ‘Many schools are too often trying to avoid these discussions.’

We live in a polarized society and of course our schools do not escape it. So what happened at the Atlas College in Genk last week on the occasion of an event related to the International Day against Homo- and Transphobia is but one example of this.

By the way, it makes no sense to target this school here, this could have happened in a lot of schools. This means that all our school teams will have to deal with this polarization in order to find effective solutions and to avoid turning playgrounds into boxing rings.

Let us begin by condemning the misconduct of the students in Genk: their reaction was unacceptable and was at the expense of the safety of fellow students. They have destroyed something and it will take time to fix it. We can only support the school in that.

However, let’s try to find out where this came from in order to find possible solutions.

During adolescence, young people start to search for who they are and are shaping their identity. For many LGBTI+ youth, that search revolves around their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, while for a lot of Muslim youth, their religious-cultural background is an important building block of that identity. Both groups often see each other as a threat (wrongly in my opinion, but that does not change how these young people experience it themselves).

Schools too often pretend that these tensions do not exist. Unfortunately, current policies in many places are often limited to some symbolic gestures. A rainbow flag is hung but the daily harassment LGBTI+ students face is overlooked which very often leaves them feeling isolated and unsafe. People do wish Muslim students a happy Eid but regarding the pressing issues they face, there is often not even the beginning of a discussion. Which in turn leads to a feeling of injustice and inequality.

In both cases, most schools usually try to silence the discussions. Until the frustrations can no longer be contained and then the damage is often very great: students are hurt, the school is no longer the safe environment it wants to be and the school’s image is ruined.

It is therefore essential that students themselves be actively involved in these discussions. In doing so, it is very important that they realize that striving for more freedom does not mean limiting the freedom of others. The focus should be on promoting equality and inclusion for all.

This also means that not every student demand will be justified anyway. Rules, norms and values that are widely held within the school, the school’s vision and how that vision is translated into practice through school regulations and rules, … can sometimes rightly limit students’ freedom questions.

If the school policy does not allow boy-girl couples to seclude themselves, then of course a girl-girl couple cannot ask that either. If there is a designated quiet room, then of course it may be used by Muslim youth to pray. If any of them would ask to remove the crucifix there, then the school does not have to do that. If the school hangs a rainbow flag, then it must be respected. A student who does not want to hang a rainbow heart on his own agenda should be allowed to refuse it, in my opinion. And so on.

Above all, we must move away from “it is what it is” or the “because I say so”. We must be able, daring and willing to defend our choices. It is very important here that the school applies its rules in a consistent and equal way to all its students. And that, where this would not be the case, there is room for conversation, listening and argument. Only then can we arrive at a policy that is supported by all.

I can already hear principals and school teams thinking “Do we have to deal with this too on top of all the work we already have?”.

However, learning to deal with differences, learning to negotiate, discuss and make compromises is an invaluable skill for our students. A lot of schools have in their mission or vision statement that they want to mold their students into strong, independent citizens. So it seems to me that this is a great opportunity to develop these skills. What good is it if your policy is approved within the official school council with a few parents and maybe a single student, while a little later you are exposed by the newspapers and social media because a group of students makes it clear that they reject your choices? By engaging in dialogue with all your students, we can transform our playgrounds from potential boxing rings to training grounds of democracy. Something every school should want, right?

Bruno De Lille is former Brussels Secretary of State for Equal Opportunities for Green, is general director of a Brussels school group and LGBTI+ activist.

>> Please note that this is a machine generated translation.