West Vancouver became the 17th school district in BC to embrace policy that specifically addresses homophobia on April 10, taking only three months to proceed from conception to final, unanimous board approval.
“This is as good an outcome as we could hope for,” says school psychologist Dr Aaron White, a counsellor in the district for 11 years.
School counsellors are only too aware of the mental health and behavioural fallout for students who are harassed, especially those who are gay, says White, who was part of a team of about seven teachers who spearheaded development of the district’s Administrative Procedure 171: Sexual Minority/Sexual Orientation/Gender Identity.
While the district has not witnessed serious cases of homophobia or “extreme” occurrences like suicide, White notes, all the studies he’s seen from the US or Canada say the same thing: students are at risk.
“Anything we do to benefit students, to protect them from homophobic harassment is going to benefit all students — gay or straight.
“All students are subject to that kind of harassment, especially the gender-based harassment — boys for not being manly enough and girls for not being feminine enough,” he says.
White says he’s proud of the district’s teachers, administration and school board for their willingness to embrace the policy.
“We didn’t make a motion or anything like that; it was unanimously supported,” West Vancouver school board chair Cindy Dekker told Xtra April 19. “We were very pleased to be able to move forward, and it was supporting our other administrative procedure on diversity and human rights.
“It wasn’t a big deal — shall we say — ever. It was part of how we do business in 2012,” Dekker adds.
Dekker calls West Vancouver a “very enlightened community,” saying she hasn’t had any concerns about homophobic harassment cross her desk.
“The District is committed to establishing and maintaining a safe and positive learning environment for all students and employees, including those who self-identify as a member of a sexual minority (including but not limited to those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender transsexual, two-spirit, queer or who are questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity,” the policy states in part.
The district also encourages staff to “adapt and include current learning resources and strategies to provide opportunities for all students and staff to develop positive awareness with respect to human rights, anti-discrimination and cultural diversity related to sexual minorities,” it reads. Training for staff, elected trustees and parent advisory councils to “identify and eliminate homophobic practices” will also receive district support, as will the continued existence of gay-straight alliances (GSA) in secondary schools, the policy further states.
West Vancouver Teachers Association president Robert Millard says the policy affirms what “we believe in and what we do.”
“I hear positive things from teachers. I haven’t heard one person go, ‘Why are we doing this?’ From an association point of view, we are very pleased,” he adds.
Millard also notes the progressiveness of school board trustees. “This is not something they had to wrestle with.”
He says it was also a “pleasant surprise” there was no parental backlash against the policy. “There was nothing.”
If there were dissenters out there, he says, they didn’t air their views.
“We haven’t had any blowback like that at all,” White confirms. The district has a lot of parents who are “fairly progressive in their values,” he adds. “But even among well-meaning kids, you can’t walk down a hallway in a high school anywhere, it seems, and not occasionally hear homophobic putdowns. Guys will do it to each other, friends will do it to each other.”
White says an ongoing issue for staff and schools is how to negotiate the difficult ground of intervening to stop harassment that “looks like harassment when you see it and hear it” but is just a part of students’ “friendship style.”
“Clearly, there are other cases we all hear about where kids have been considerably harassed, and it’s severely impacted them,” he adds. “We definitely have homophobia here like anywhere else.”