After years of operating without controversy, the Vancouver School Board's (VSB) eight-year-old anti-homophobia policy was at the centre of a heated debate on Feb 7 for the second school board meeting in a row.
Board chair Patti Bacchus says debate over the policy is relatively new. "To my knowledge, there has not been any significant level of debate about the policy in the past," she says.
Kari Simpson, president of Culture Guard, which asks people to "help fund the war" to protect civil society, says critics of the policy are riled up.
"As more and more parents find out about what's going on, they get concerned," she says. "They hold meetings. More and more people find out."
Bacchus said she's troubled that the board meeting has been used as a platform. She says the board has made clear its support for queers, and its commitment to being a safe school district.
The policy to prevent homophobic bullying in schools has come to the forefront after two NPA trustees, Sophia Woo and Ken Denike, appeared in two videos. The first, posted by an American anti-gay-marriage group, Marriage Anti-Defamation Alliance (MADA), shows Denike and Woo discussing their concerns about Out in Schools, an anti-homophobia education program.
Denike has told Xtra he and Woo were misled as to what the video was to be used for.
A second video posted to YouTube on Aug 20 surfaced a day after the MADA one, showing Denike and Woo urging people at a Christian Social Concern Fellowship (CSCF) picnic to vote for them if they want to block the implementation of anti-homophobia policy in Vancouver.
The VSB passed its anti-homophobia policy in 2004.
The controversy over the two videos led to the board's passing a motion of censure against the two trustees Jan 16 for "publicly misrepresenting the board's anti-homophobia policy."
In the censure vote, which passed 6-3 last month, the board also reaffirmed its support for the anti-homophobia policy.
NPA trustee Fraser Ballantyne says he, too, wanted to reaffirm the anti-homophobia policy but wouldn't do so because the vote last month was tied to a move to censure Woo and Denike. Ballantyne reaffirmed his support for the anti-homophobia policy Feb 7.
Woo, who began her tenure as trustee in December, and Denike, who first became a trustee in 1984, say they support the anti-homophobia policy, too.
Despite overwhelming support from the board, critics and supporters have vociferously debated the policy at the last two board meetings. About 40 people showed up at the Feb 7 school board meeting, while more than 100 showed up last month.
During the question period Feb 7, some opponents charged that the anti-homophobia policy promotes pornography in schools. Several mentioned that material from Out in Schools (OIS) included a link to a sexual video by the Health Initiative for Men (HIM).
Bacchus says it's not uncommon for online content to change. The link was fixed after officials were notified of the glitch.
HIM's Hottest at the Start campaign print and web campaign was launched in July, and went online in August. OIS removed its links to HIM in August, both online and in a new edition of an OIS booklet, Out in Schools director of education Ross Johnstone told Xtra in December. The program is careful to provide only age-appropriate material to youth, he added.
Denike and Woo made headlines with their claim that the OIS booklet linked kids to porn.
Denike, Woo and NPA mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton quickly expressed regret for the statement in a press release dated Oct 3. The release notes that OIS had "removed references to external community resources" and acknowledges that "Out in Schools is very careful to show only age-appropriate material in its school presentations."
Supporters of Vancouver's anti-homophobia policy says it addresses an essential need to protect students from anti-gay bullying in schools.
Anti-homophobia activist and educator Ryan Clayton says both sides have become frustrated with each other since the summer, when the link to the video first surfaced. He says opponents of the anti-homophobia policy pounced on the error.
"It's this pot that's been boiling for a long time," he says. "And now it's boiling over."
The uproar in Vancouver follows the controversy over the Burnaby school district's anti-homophobia policy, 5.45, that trustees passed unanimously June 14. Some opponents of that policy have come to Vancouver to raise the issue here, identifying themselves to Bacchus as Burnaby residents, the VSB chair told Xtra.
Bacchus says she's troubled that people from other school districts would interfere in Vancouver's affairs. She says Vancouver has its own parent and student groups.
Jennifer Yoon, vice-president of the Vancouver District Students' Council, says she recognized some opponents from Parents' Voice, which spearheaded the campaign to oppose Burnaby's anti-homophobia policy. "There are too many voices that are not particularly associated with" the VSB, she says.
Bacchus says some unruly attendees have violated the board's policy of a harassment-free workplace. In an unusual move, the board obtained security for the Feb 7 meeting, costing taxpayers money, she says.
After the meeting, Bacchus spoke with top school officials about the possibility of revising the question period, which has been exploited as a political platform, she says.
"Up until these last two meetings, it hasn't been a problem," she notes.
Trustees didn't publicly address a letter from a lawyer representing Woo and Denike. The letter, dated Feb 6 and sent to the six trustees who voted for censure, alleges that they have defamed Woo and Denike. "While expressly reserving all rights," the letter states, the two do not want to sue the board and incur expenses for taxpayers.
Bacchus says the letter is designed to silence critics. "We would call this a 'chill' letter to intimidate people into silence," she says.
Denike says the letter is designed to make clear that the school board's bylaws don't permit censure and board members should cease and desist.