Politicians, health researchers and gay rights activists have accused News Limited columnist Miranda Devine of misrepresenting evidence and downplaying the seriousness of homophobic bullying in a front-page news story and accompanying opinion piece published in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph today.

Devine’s news story, republished on the Herald Sun and Australian websites, claims NSW students “are being taught it is wrong and ‘heterosexist’ to regard heteros-xuality as the norm for human relationships”. In her full-page opinion piece, Devine says the Proud Schools anti-homophobia program — which is being trialled in 12 NSW schools — “appears designed more for indoctrination and propaganda than to eliminate bullying”. She argues there is “little evidence” that homophobia is a big problem in schools.

Senthorun Raj, who was a member of the Proud Schools steering committee, told Crikey: “Miranda Devine has chosen to write an entire article using evidence that shows exactly the opposite of what she argues. It’s quite concerning.”

In both articles, Devine refers to 2010 research from La Trobe University, based on a survey of 3000 school children, that was used to guide the Proud Schools program. Some of the report’s key findings, not mentioned by Devine, include: 61% of same-sex and questioning young people reported verbal abuse because of homophobia, 18% physical abuse and 26% other forms of abuse. The number of students reporting homophobic abuse had risen since 1998 and 2004. Eighty per cent of those who suffered homophobic bullying said it happened at school and over a third of respondents described their school as homophobic.

The La Trobe researchers also found an association between school anti-homophobia programs and students’ feelings about their sexuality: 87% of students who ranked their school as supportive felt good or great, compared to 75% at a school labelled homophobic by students.

Raj, a former policy officer at the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, said he’s disappointed by the Tele‘s coverage given its recent “Stop the Trolls” campaign to stop cyber-bullying and harassment: “If they are really going to call out the trolls why would they publish inflammatory stories that are misrepresenting information and saying bullying isn’t a problem?”

Anne Mitchell, an associate professor in health sciences at La Trobe, and one of the authors of the 2010 study, said: “I take exception to this whole idea about being normal. Heterosexuality is more common, but heterosexuality and homosexuality are both normal. This is not about trying to recruit people, it’s about trying to take the heat out of an issue so young people who are questioning their sexuality know they’re OK.”

NSW Labor frontbencher Penny Sharpe said: “The article misses the point of what Proud Schools is about. It’s an anti-homophobia program that says school students are worthy of respect and should be free to be who they are. It’s about being inclusive of all people.”

Greens MP Cate Faehrmann described Devine’s take this morning as “fear mongering from an extreme minority”.

Devine told Crikey this morning: “The point we’re making is that this has gone beyond tackling homophobic bullying into the area of heterosexism … My article didn’t deny homophobic bullying is a problem.”

Devine says the idea heterosexist attitudes could lead to homophobia is “offensive”. The dictionary definition of heterosexism is: a prejudiced attitude or discriminatory practices against  homosexuals by heterosexuals.

Macquarie Street insiders told Crikey the Tele story appears to be driven by right-wing Liberals angry that Premier Barry O’Farrell handed the key education post to Adrian Piccoli, a moderate member of the National Party. According to Devine, “at least 10” Coalition MPs will complain to Piccoli this week about the Proud Schools program. There are 69 NSW Coalition MPs.

Piccoli came out strongly on ABC Local Radio this morning, saying he stood by the Proud Schools program. In a speech last month he praised his Labor predecessor Verity Firth for initiating the pilot program in Labor’s final term of government as “it is important for [the] cohesion of a harmonious, tolerant and inclusive school environment”.