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Zoe Nikakis
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A University of Melbourne survey funded by VicHealth has found one in five primary and high school students said they were daily targets of racism at school.

It also found the levels of racism may be much higher, as many school students reported they frequently witnessed racism which was directed at others. More than two-thirds of students said they saw another student being teased because of their cultural background at least once a month.

The results, from a benchmarking survey of 264 young people aged eight to 17-years-old, include the finding that a third (33.2%) of students reported direct experiences of racism at school at least every month, mostly perpetrated by other students. This figure rose to 45 per cent if the student was born overseas.

The most common racist experience students reported was being told they did not belong in Australia, followed by being left out of play or group work, being spat on, pushed or hit and, less commonly, being excluded by a teacher. It was far more common for primary school students to witness and experience racism than secondary students.

However, 444 school staff members who were also surveyed reported mostly positive attitudes towards and experiences of diversity, saying staff very rarely or never experienced racism. Most felt positive about their schools’ environments and efforts to create a pro-diversity culture.

Lead researcher and child racism expert Dr Naomi Priest from the University of Melbourne and Deakin University will present the findings at the Lowitja Institute racism and child health symposium in Melbourne today.

Dr Priest said these results strongly supported the need for effective school-based interventions to prevent race-based discrimination.

“We found that experiences of racism at school had a consistent detrimental effect on students’ mental wellbeing,” she said.

“Those who directly experienced racism were the most likely to feel sad and isolated.

“We also found that students who reported more motivation to be fair to others from different cultural backgrounds reported more positive mental wellbeing.”

Dr Priest said interventions to promote a culture of fairness in school may have a positive impact on experiences of loneliness for all students.

“It would appear that school staff may not be fully aware of the discriminatory behaviour being perpetuated at school. Ongoing support is needed for school staff in order to build capacity for school-based pro-diversity interventions. We are currently working with schools and education departments to develop and implement such interventions,” she said.

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter said rather than avoiding the topic of cultural differences, it should be discussed by teachers at school and at home by parents, to teach children to respect and value our multicultural society.

For more information, see the Journal of Youth and Adolescence Experiences of Racism, Racial/Ethnic Attitudes, Motivated Fairness and Mental Health Outcomes Among Primary and Secondary School Students paper