Roger Crouch, who was an advocate of anti-bullying following his son’s death and recently won Stonewall’s Hero of the Year award, tragically died on Sunday. David Hudson from our men’s magazine, Out in the City, interviewed him last Friday in what we believe was his last interview. We publish the full transcript in honour of Crouch’s hard work and the continuation of his legacy.
What awareness did you have about the problems caused by bullying, and more specifically homophobic bullying, before Dominic’s death?
Roger Crouch: Well, I had quite a lot because by profession I was an educationalist and worked in children’s services. I was actually a director of children’s services for a large local authority in the Midlands not long before Dom died and I left that for a job with the third sector only a few months before. So, I was pretty well aware of it, and I’ve become increasingly aware since the early 2000s that homophobic bullying was an increasingly common form of bullying in schools. I was also well aware of the way in which kids use the word ‘gay’ as a kind of catch all put down, for things or for people. So, I wasn’t at all surprised by that, and actually when I first saw Dom’s note which said he’d been bullied, which I saw on the night of his death, my immediate assumption was that the nature of that bullying was homophobic.
Do you think homophobic bullying has become a worse problem over the years, or do children use it simply because they know it will upset other children?
I think it has become worse. It has become one of the characteristic forms of bullying. I think one of things that has changed with bullying is that a lot more bullying these days is psychological rather than physical, and I think that’s especially true in middle class schools. Bullies aren’t stupid. They know that if they physically bully someone that it’s likely to be identified and they’re likely to suffer some sanctions. Subtle and more pernicious forms of bullying have become increasingly common. Lots of people think that the psychological form of bullying – the spreading of rumours, gossip, name-calling, social isolation, exclusion, etc, is often seen by people in gender terms. They typically see that as the way girls bully… the whole ‘mean girls’ sort of bullying, but I think it’s increasingly common amongst boys as well. It’s a way of ridiculing and humiliating in a way that is much less obvious than physical bullying.
And presumably developments in technology, with the internet and text messaging, have made it easier to psychologically bully someone?
Yeah. People often blame the technology but I don’t think that’s quite right because I don’t think the technology is responsible. I think what the technology does is make that kind of verbal bullying much easier to do for the bully. You can humiliate your chosen target in front of a much wider audience, much more easily than you can by name-calling in the playground or wherever. For the target of bullying, the big difference in the technology is that it denies them any place of safety. There’s no refuge. I’m quite old – I’m 55. I went to secondary school in 1967. I lived in a house with one telephone, and that was only ever answered by my mum or dad. When I was away from school, I was safe. The bullies couldn’t get to you. Now the bullies can get to you 24/7, 365 days a year if they want. I think that makes a massive difference. I think the psychological impact of not having a refuge is something that we really ought to try and understand, because I think you can see it in a lot of the cases of children who have taken their own lives because of bullying and who haven’t got a hiding place.
Do you think schools are not doing enough to tackle bullying?
I think schools divide probably into three categories. I think the very worst schools are those that say, “We don’t have a problem with bullying in this school.” As a parent and as a professional, if I ever hear a school tell me that they don’t have a problem with bullying, I don’t believe them. And that’s the views of people such as Ofsted as well. Sue Gregory, [National Director] of Ofsted spoke at the Stonewall conference on bullying, and she was very clear, saying, “If a school tells me it doesn’t have a problem with bullying, I don’t believe it.” And neither do I. But I think that the schools that are in denial about bullying are the worst schools. The majority of schools are in the middle category. They are very sincere in their efforts to tackle bullying, but it isn’t part of the day-to-day running of the school, or isn’t reflected in the whole school ethos and culture. It’s not something that people prioritise every day. And I think that there’s a minority of schools that are extremely good at tackling bullying. They are the schools that recognise that they have a problem. They are the best at reporting incidents, if they are local authority schools, to the local authority. They are schools that keep good logs of reports of homophobic and racist bullying incidents. They tend to have good policies, but more importantly, they have good policies that they put into practice. They make the safeguarding and wellbeing of their children a priority, whereas other schools don’t. I recently spoke at St Augustine’s school in Westminster, which is a real inner city, multi-cultural school. What struck me about that school was how good the pastoral care system for the children was, and how they really prioritized it, and what also struck me was how that they had huge benefits in educational achievements. An inner city school doing 10% better than the national average, and that wasn’t just because they were focusing on standards, but because they were focusing on the wellbeing of their kids.
How did you feel when you heard you’d been chosen for the ‘Hero of the Year’ award in the annual Stonewall Awards?
I was absolutely gobsmacked! I knew I’d been nominated. I knew that there were various celebrities up for it, including Lady Gaga, and frankly, I thought my chances of winning any competition in which I was shortlisted alongside Lady Gaga were pretty slim! So, I was amazed really. I was absolutely astounded.
On the one hand I was very honoured, but I think I said on the evening, Paula [Crouch – his wife] and I were probably the only people who have been awarded Hero of the Year by Stonewall who never really wanted it. I don’t mean that disrespectfully, but we never wanted the circumstances that led to us being considered for it. But… life deals you some funny hands. I’m very proud to have it. And I also think it’s been tremendously helpful in some ways because it’s given our campaign against bullying and teenage suicide a real boost. It’s validated what we’ve been doing, and given us greater credibility, if we needed it, than we had before, so I’m really very grateful for it, but at the time I was absolutely astounded.
We have a Facebook page at Friends of Dom Crouch against bullying. There are lots of other good websites concerned with bullying. There’s the Anti-Bullying Coalition. There’s Beat Bullying, which I think is the largest anti-bullying charity in the country. In terms of homophobic bullying, there’s a lot of information on Stonewall’s website, and groups like the Lesbian and Gay Foundation (www.lgf.org.uk), which is a Manchester-based charity – they’ve done some fantastic work. Both Stonewall and LGF produce some very good packs for schools, specifically on homophobic bullying and tackling homophobia more generally in schools. It’s not just about homophobic bullying as such. Increasingly there are children in schools who are from different families. The kids may not be LGBT, but they might have two dads or two mums, or even just a gay uncle…
Which is highlighted by your own particular story – homophobia is not something that solely affects gay people, it can effect the children of gay people, or the parents of gay kids…
Yeah. The other important group are kids who are seen by other kids as conforming to a stereotype. The research says that boys who don’t like sport are often labeled as gay. As it was, Dom was very keen on sport. Girls who like sport, on the other hand, are labeled as gay. Simple things like getting your haircut can get you labeled as gay.
Or even what bands you like to listen to…
Yes, almost anything. My take on it is that what bullies tend to do is pick on any real or perceived difference. And bullies tend to be quite… they have the ability to emphasise with other people but not sympathise. Let me explain what I mean… they’re smart enough to know what people’s weaknesses are, and there’s a certain kind of personality that focuses in on those, knowing that it will be hurtful. I don’t really understand it myself, and I think people that haven’t been bullied don’t really understand the kind of psychology that causes people to bully. Some people talk about self-esteem, or social combat in schools – people putting other people down, or making them feel small in order to make themselves feel big, but that’s an area in which lots of research is still being done.
Did Dominic never give you any indication that he was being bullied at all?
Not at secondary school. He changed primary schools in year five. He did tell me when he was ten, during the summer of year five, that one kid in particular was picking on him, and that this kid had mislaid some of his stuff or hidden things, things like that. I did say to him, “Do you want me to complain to the school about it”, and he made it very clear that he didn’t and that he would sort it out himself, and apparently he did. At secondary school, he never reported any bullying. We used to spend a lot of time together doing various activities, and it’s not really a helpful strategy to say to a 13, 14, 15-year old boy “Are you being bullied?”, because if you do, I guarantee you’ll get the answer “no”, because kids don’t like being bullied, particularly to their parents – especially kids who are quite proud or see themselves as quite tough. And Dom certainly saw himself as being physically tough. There were one or two incidents. In year eight, the second year, his school bag disappeared for a while. He didn’t come home with it, and it was found the next day and it had been in the showers. My wife complained about that and we were told it was being dealt with. There were quite a lot of occasions when stuff of Dom’s would go missing and then re-appear later, and I sometimes had my doubts about that, but it was difficult to put your finger on, and that was partly because Dom was dyslexic. He didn’t have wonderful organizational skills himself and he could be very forgetful. I’d had experiences with him, where we’d be going somewhere, perhaps to play rugby, and we’d have got 15 miles from home when he realized that he didn’t have his rugby boots with him. I think I probably had the largest collection of gum shields of any rugby dad in Gloucestershire because he was always forgetting those! It’s difficult to say… because you tend to want to find the normal explanation for these things, and although I had my suspicions sometimes, it was very hard to put your finger on. It’s everso tempting, with hindsight, to look again at lots of little things which actually are probably just a part of normal teenage behaviour, and to look at them as indicators of something worse… and, well I really don’t know where to go on that because I could look back at every little thing and say “Oh God, that was a sign and I should have done something about that”, but at the time I didn’t feel like that, I just thought it was a normal part of being 13, 14, 15… I was like that at that age, and so wasn’t surprised that he was like that. I’d forget stuff and lose things – kids do that.
And he never talked about his sexuality either, so you don’t actually know if he was gay or not?
He did talk about his sexuality a bit. He had, not long before he died, asked out one of the girls at the school, or asked her to ‘be in a relationship’ with him, as I think young people these days seem to characterize a relationship by what it means to their Facebook status! He never talked about being gay, and he’d always shown a pretty obvious interest in girls. He very clearly had an enormous crush on this particular girl. There was never any indication that he was interested in anything other than girls. I do wonder if the homophobic nature of the bullying was sort of conscious homophobia or whether it was that sort of use of the term ‘gay’ as a catch-all put down, because gay is used so casually and frequently in schools, meaning ‘lame’ or ‘useless’. I suspect it may have been a combination of things. He didn’t have a girlfriend… therefore he was easy to label as gay. A friend of ours in the States, her son was labeled gay. He shot himself in his school on his 17th birthday, and he was labeled gay simply because the bullies discovered that at 17 he was still a virgin, and in their eyes that made him gay. ‘Gay’ is used to humiliate and ridicule someone, and young people are very sensitive about their sexual identity, and it doesn’t matter whether you are gay, straight or questioning, that sensitivity is still there.
Dom actually had a very open mind about a lot of things, and he was very friendly with a boy at school who was very obviously gay. I don’t know if he had come out at the time, but having met him, and having met him at Cotswold Pride this summer, he didn’t really need to, because he was about as visibly gay as you could be as a school pupil, but that was typical of Dom. He didn’t judge people. He wasn’t bothered by the superficial difference between people. It was just a part of his personality. He tended to be nice to people who were a bit on the margins. If there was a new kid at rugby club, or if a new kid joined the school other than at the start of the school year, and they were out on the margins, Dom was the sort of person who befriended them. He’d done that since primary school. We got a tremendously moving letter after he died from someone… that we’d forgotten about actually… they’d only spent a short time at the primary school Dom was at, and the mother wrote and said how nice Dom had been to her son, who had joined the school at half term and hadn’t stayed for a long time, and Dom was the only one who really befriended him. That was the kind of kid that he was.
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