Three weeks after the deadline to pass anti-homophobia policy in all BC schools, Xtra has learned that a few districts are lagging, despite initial claims from the education minister that all complied.
Though most of the 60 public school districts and the Federation of Independent Schools Association passed a policy or already had one in place by the Dec 31, 2016 deadline, at least six districts are still in progress, and one’s status is unknown because it wouldn't return Xtra's calls.
The six districts that missed the deadline are: Peace River North, Kootenay-Columbia, Okanagan Skaha, Richmond, Nisga’a and the Conseil scolaire francophone, which are all in the process of making changes to their policy. Abbotsford didn’t return Xtra’s calls.
When Xtra contacted BC education minister Mike Bernier on Jan 3, 2017, he initially said that no districts were lagging behind, and insisted that all school boards were expected to comply. He also said the ministry had signed a partnership with the ARC Foundation to support school districts in making the changes.
After Xtra provided the ministry with the names of districts found to be lagging or unconfirmed, Bernier’s staff refused to schedule a follow-up interview but provided a statement from the minister saying ministry staff have reached out to all districts asking where they’re at with the policy changes.
“I expect every school district to have references to sexual orientation and gender identity in their anti-bullying policies as required. My ministry is following up with districts for a status update. We will direct any districts without the references in place to get it done immediately,” the Jan 12 statement says.
James Chamberlain of the Pride Education Network hopes Bernier will take action with districts that are late or inactive.
“Bernier needs to have a consequence for the districts that haven't passed it. The districts that are left over are really outliers in terms of basic human rights for students and supporting LGBTQ students in schools,” Chamberlain says.
“So, you know December's come and gone, but the question really becomes what is the minister prepared to do about that,” he says.
Chamberlain says the Pride Education Network would be happy to support districts who need a hand implementing their new LGBT policy. He notes that without such a policy in place, those teachers who want to comply and teach anti-homophobia and anti-transphobia education are left with little support. “Those teachers are really left out on a limb and unprotected,” he says.
At least one district welcomed the deadline because it pushed them to pass new policy. Superintendent Charlene Seguin of Nechako Lakes, an hour west of Prince George, says her district met the deadline to update existing policies and is working on a new, separate policy to specifically acknowledge and protect students’ sexual orientation and gender expression.
She’s optimistic about the new policy’s impact. “My assumptions are that once these policies are in place more kids will be coming forward [about their gender identities and sexual orientation],” she says.
Other districts didn’t make the deadline. Candace Clouthier, assistant superintendent of Peace River North, says she started circulating her district’s policy update and it should be completed by the end of January. “The policy is there it just hasn't been through its final cycle and I don't see any problem with that,” she says, adding she’s confident it “will be passed by the end of January.”
As with all new policy, Clouthier says she has to circulate the proposed changes for 45 days, during which the public is invited to give feedback. In this instance, she hasn’t heard from anyone, but she says this is common when it comes to policy changes. Clouthier provided Xtra with a copy of the policy in progress, and says that once it’s in place she hopes it will make schools safer for LGBT students in her district.
“We're a very small northern town. . . but we certainly have groups of students and individuals who are identifying [their gender and sexuality] in various ways and that’s very much supported at the school level by teachers, by principals and accepted by other students as well,” she says.
Meanwhile, support staff from the Nisga’a district and the Conseil scolaire francophone say their districts have started updates, but no one was available to speak on the record to confirm details on their progress. Okanagan Skaha has posted its proposed policy changes online with a public feedback deadline of Feb 1. Xtra wasn’t able to connect with anyone from Kootenay-Columbia, but a staff member at the BC Teachers’ Federation says the district has started updates.
Back in the Lower Mainland, Richmond has yet to comply.
In an email to Xtra, school trustee Sandra Nixon says revisions to the existing student code are in their final stages and now open to public feedback.
In November, students petitioned the Richmond trustees for a stand-alone LGBT policy. In response, the board asked staff to research the possibility of a separate policy for the district. According to Nixon, the board is anticipating a report back from the district superintendent “in the near future.”
Chamberlain says Richmond’s lack of leadership in creating a separate LGBT policy is disappointing.
He suspects some parental opposition may have deterred the Richmond trustees from passing such a policy earlier, and it may have been the students’ lobbying that persuaded them to reconsider. “The districts that have had it [a dedicated LGBT policy] for a long time have found it very effective in reducing harassment of LGBTQ students,” he says.
In Abbotsford superintendent Kevin Godden did not respond to Xtra’s interview request and the district’s communications director Kayla Stuckart initially promised to provide an update but didn’t follow up. The district is known for its spotty record of supporting LGBT students, including its headline-making decision first to ban an LGBT-friendly Social Justice course for Grade 12 students in 2008, then to offer it but only with parental consent.
As for BC’s independent schools, the executive director of their federation says it has created a policy that asks its 300 member schools to develop strategies to create an inclusive environment.
In keeping with the ministry’s new guidelines, Peter Froese says the new policy requires BC’s private schools to provide “protection from bullying regardless of their gender, race, culture, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity and expression while remaining consistent with the school's faith values, cultural perspectives and philosophical values.”
Asked if an independent school’s “faith values” could override protection for some LGBT students, Froese says schools are allowed to “set their own enrolment policies,” which vary from “open” to “restrictive.”
But once enrolled, students will be protected against gender and sexual orientation-based discrimination, no matter whether the school is faith-based, secular, special needs-based, or pedagogical like Montessori, Froese told Xtra on Jan 17.
According to Froese, all schools in the Federation of Independent Schools have adopted the new policy, except for one that was lagging behind. He would not disclose the name of the school but says the government’s independent school’s branch had given its schools until Jan 20 to implement the policy, and he was hopeful the school would comply.