Dozens of students from Abbotsford’s WJ Mouat Secondary School took to the streets Sep 30 to protest the dropping of the Social Justice 12 program which teaches tolerance for queers and other minority groups.
Ninety students had signed up for the elective course but were told just before classes started that the course had been dropped by the school district located in what has become known as the province’s “bible belt.”
In advance of the Sep 30 protest, the students, who say they’re also fighting for gay rights, set up a Facebook site. On the day prior to the protest, 230 people had joined the site.
Social Justice 12 is designed to promote tolerance and diversity by introducing students to concepts such as homophobia, heterosexism and cultural imperialism. The course was developed as part of a settlement reached two years ago between BC’s Attorney General and Murray and Peter Corren, two queer activists who filed a human rights complaint against the province alleging the omission of gay realities from the classroom was discriminatory.
Alex Loewen was at the protest, having signed up for the course last February. Loewen — who is straight — says she found out she wouldn’t be able to take it a week before school started in September.
“In 10 months, I can vote,” she points out. “I can drive a car but I’m not allowed to take a course that talks about issues like this. That bothers me.
“It’s kind of insulting. We’re young adults. We’re being treated like children.”
Education minister Shirley Bond says school boards are not required to offer the course in their schools.
Though Bond declined Xtra West’s request for an interview, as she has on other education issues, she did provide a statement through her communications office.
According to the statement, only 20 schools in BC have decided to offer the course this fall.
“Social Justice 12 is an optional course,” the statement notes.
“We believe locally elected trustees are in the best position to determine what electives their districts should offer,” it continues. “And we would expect the district to listen to the views of parents and students when making those decisions.”
Abbotsford district spokesperson Dave Stephen says his district’s decision not to offer the course has nothing to do with discrimination.
The whole situation is the result of an unfortunate series of miscommunications, he says, noting that the retirement of one school’s superintendent and the start of a new one — Julie Macrae — added to the confusion.
The former superintendent had met with secondary principals in the spring to ask them not to offer the course until a final review had been done, Stephen explains. But the Mouat principal was not at that meeting. As a result, the course was offered and students signed up for an elective course that had not yet received full board approval.
Stephen says the district had reviewed the draft course and had asked the ministry to see the final offering before it went into the curriculum. “That didn’t happen,” he says.
As a result, he says, the board is now doing what it had asked the ministry for this spring. The final review is now underway and the course could be offered next semester.
In its place this semester, he says, is an Abbotsford-developed course called Global Studies and Active Citizenship. There is no reference in that course to sexual orientation.
That program covers issues such as social justice, genocide, human rights, freedom of information and privacy, according to Stephen.
As for Social Justice 12, he says it contains “a number of issues that are controversial.”
“Every board in BC has the right to determine what elective courses are offered,” he adds, calling the district a “community filter.”
“If it’s a mandated part of the curriculum, it’s offered,” he says. “Other districts are not offering it.”
Jane Bouey is a former queer Vancouver school board trustee who is running once more for a seat on the COPE ticket. She agrees that the Abbotsford board has the right not to offer the course. But she considers the decision unusual.
“I just think it’s both infuriating and sad that 90 students who want to take a course, [that] their right to take a course is denied,” she says.
If people would actually take the time to look at the entire course outline, she says, the situation might be less “ridiculous.”
Social Justice 12 is “a pretty basic approach to social justice,” she says.
As it stands now, Bouey says, the situation is “unacceptable.”
She says the recent attack on Jordan Smith, a gay man, on Davie St further underlines the need for a course in tolerance.
Smith was attacked Sep 27 as he was walking hand in hand with another man. His attacker allegedly screamed obscenities about the couple’s sexual orientation, then knocked Smith unconscious with a blow to the head. Smith’s jaw was broken in three places and is now wired shut to heal.
“It just makes me want to cry,” Bouey says.
Elliott Brown, 17, attends Belmont Senior Secondary in Langford near Victoria, but is taking Social Justice 12 at night school with about 20 other students. She says the decision of the Abbotsford school district to offer the course and then withdraw it is “cowardly.”
For the province to invest time and effort in creating the course and then not ensure it’s offered to those who actively want to take it is nothing short of hypocrisy, she says.
“It’s not just about gays and lesbians,” continues Brown, who is president of the Belmont Gay-Straight Alliance. “It’s about the entire Canadian population. It’s about their rights and equality.”
Loewen hesitates to call the school district cowardly. She says cautious is likely a better term.
With the diverse cultural makeup of the city, she says some of the material was bound to be controversial.
But given that diversity, perhaps the Abbotsford district needs Social Justice 12 to help its various cultures be tolerant and accepting of each other, she adds.
Noble Kelly of Gay and Lesbian Educators (GALE) of BC helped create the course with the ministry. He calls the district’s actions “shocking.”
“Abbotsford school trustees’ recent actions to remove some of the content of a Ministry of Education-approved course demonstrates the very oppression addressed in the course, while working against the creation of safe and caring schools for all students — not just lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students,” Kelly says.
“What about the rights of the students to a quality education with content — not a watered-down substitute — that will prepare them for living and working in a world respectful of diversity?” he asks, echoing Loewen.
If the district can reject the province’s guidelines in one course, has it altered other parts of the curriculum, Kelly wonders.
GALE has asked for a full audit by the ministry of course offerings in the district, including Planning 10, Family Studies and other ministry-approved programs.
“The [district] needs to prove to the general public that they can comply with Ministry of Education standards for course delivery without indiscriminate censorship of course content,” says GALE’s Faune Johnson.
“There is clearly an onus on this board to prove to the LGBTQ community, as well as the community at large, that they value all citizens and are actively educating students to create a more socially just world.”