A YOUNG Highland councillor says he does not believe that only one incident of homophobic bullying occurred in the region’s schools in the last year.
Alex MacLeod questioned figures provided to councillors on bullying and warned it does not paint a true picture of the situation facing gay youngsters in the classroom or playground.
An equality charity has backed his views and claimed incidents are not being reported because it is harder for young people to come out as gay in the Highlands compared to the rest of Scotland.
There were 20 bullying or racist incidents in the region’s primary and secondary schools up until May this year, which included jibes about disability and religion, but only one solitary homophobic case at an unidentified school.
In a report debated by Highland Council’s community safety committee in Inverness, education official Bernadette Cairns stated the figures were far lower than national statistics because incidents were not being reported.
Councillor MacLeod, an SNP Caithness councillor who lives in Easter Ross, agreed and said action was needed to tackle homophobic bullying while cutting the red tape for teachers.
"I don’t believe there was only one incident of homophobic bullying in the Highlands," said Councillor MacLeod, who backed the committee’s decision to revise the guidance provided to head teachers and review the "cumbersome" reporting form.
"I think there is a perception amongst the teachers that I have spoken to in the past week the form seems to be escalating the situation. There is a lot of bureaucracy and we need to work with teachers to make it a bit more simple."
The 20-year-old councillor, who said earlier this year he intended to use same-sex marriage legislation when he is older, warned homophobic bullying had a huge effect on its victims.
A national survey concluded more than half of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people in Scotland had experienced homophobic bullying.
Of that total, Councillor MacLeod added 54 per cent had self harmed and 26 per cent had contemplated suicide as a result.
Scott Cuthbertson, the Equality Network’s community development co-ordinator, said anecdotal evidence from gay and bisexual adults in the Highlands made him believe homophobic bullying was a major problem in schools.
"There isn’t the same confidence about coming out in the Highlands compared to urban areas like Glasgow and Edinburgh," he said.
"I think a lot of cases are not reported because young people have not come out and are not confident because there is a fear their parents will be told it is homophobic bullying. There are certainly more people who have expressed to us that they were bullied at school in the Highlands or saw homophobic bullying when they were at school."
Joanne Mackenzie-Winters, of the Highland Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Forum, said the homophobic bullying case reported was probably "the tip of the iceberg".
She said: "Any bullying needs to be tackled and this includes homophobic and transphobic incidents, many of which occur through ignorance and lack of understanding. Many people in the Highlands still find it difficult to come out, particularly in rural communities and areas with a strong church influence."
Ms Mackenzie-Winters suggested diversity champions and better peer support in schools could increase young people’s confidence to come forward.