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Abbott unveils education plan, denies inaction on homophobia

'Students shouldn't have to die for the ministry to pay attention to this': Hansman

"There's still a lot of very challenging and, I think, very unfortunate and unconstructive attitudes evident in schools," said Education Minister George Abbott on Oct 28. "Yes, we need to do more. Have we done nothing? No, I don't agree with that." Credit: Jeremy Hainsworth photo

As he unveiled BC’s new education plan Oct 28, the minister of education denied accusations that the government’s ongoing promises to deal with homophobic bullying are little more than rhetoric.

On Jan 8, during her leadership run, Premier Christy Clark promised the gay community that homophobic bullying would be among her top priorities if she were to become premier.

Minister of Education George Abbott said the new plan would be accepting of students “regardless of what package they come in.” There is, however, no overall government policy to address the issue. Abbott disputed the suggestion that the government is doing nothing.

“Yes, there is still too much bullying in schools. Yes, there is still too much homophobia in some corners of schools without a doubt, but it is not, I think, for lack of trying on the part of educational partners.”

The minister said there are now anti-bullying policies in all 60 school districts and “we’ve also asked them to address anti-homophobia, and in different ways. Different school districts have taken on that, as well.”

BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) second vice-president Glen Hansman, a gay teacher, says the BCTF is unaware of any such directive from Abbott or any previous education minister.

“Students shouldn’t have to die for the ministry to pay attention to this,” Hansman says.

Abbott says he met with Ryan Clayton, of the Purple Letter Campaign, in Victoria earlier in the week.

“What he tells me about the situation in BC schools, there’s still a lot of very challenging and, I think, very unfortunate and unconstructive attitudes evident in schools. Yes, we need to do more. Have we done nothing? No, I don’t agree with that.

“We need to find ways that every student feels safe in classrooms in BC,” Abbott added.

Clayton and Kaitlin Burnett presented Abbott with more than 200 letters explaining why the BC government should adopt a provincewide sexual-orientation and gender-identity policy for schools.

At the meeting, Abbott expressed support for the campaign’s objective but stopped short of promising any legislative or policy changes.

The meeting was the culmination of the campaign to gather letters from queer community members addressed to the premier and education minister explaining why a queer-friendly policy was necessary.

Abbott told the two activists his ministry would be doing some “additional consultations about the schools and school systems” over the next four months.

The meeting came just over three weeks after the recent throne speech in which the government set out to address bullying but failed to specifically mention queer students or homophobia.

Hansman says the BCTF is hopeful something positive will come out when that issue is addressed further.

Abbott unveiled the government’s education plan at a student conference in Richmond. He told the crowd of about 100 high school students the plan’s basic principle was to ensure all students realize their full potential and contribute to the well-being of the province.

He said ‘”regardless of what package they come in, we should reach out to them.” And, Abbott says, diversity should be accepted.

But he acknowledged there have been failures in the system as a whole.

“The Ministry of Health gets to deal with the consequences of people who consider themselves failures because of their experience at school.”

Clark released a leadership anti-bullying platform in a video statement Feb 22. In it, she promised tougher bullying laws, restoration of funding for school programs like Roots of Empathy, and training for educators to make schools safer.

The Roots of Empathy Program has been restored.

“Homophobic bullying is one kind of very prevalent bullying that is out there,” Clark said at a news conference announcing the program’s reinstatement.

“What we need to do is make sure that every school in the province is armed with the information on how to deal with bullying better,” she adds.

But, say queer educators, the program is a start in dealing with bullying in general, but more needs to be done to specifically target homophobia in schools.

“For older students,” Clark said in the Feb 22 statement, “I’ll educate them about accepting diversity and the strengths it brings to our society. As part of that, I’ll make Pink Shirt Day part of the school calendar.”

While the new plan gives districts more flexibility in developing calendars, Pink Shirt Day is not mentioned.

But, says Hansman, Pink Shirt Day is not the kind of activity that should be included in such a document. Further, Hansman said, the government still has little to do with gay-straight alliances in schools, groups that remain student-teacher driven.

“The province has failed on this time and time again,” he says.