4 min

Anti-bullying conference lacks gay voices, activists say

'You don't have to like every kid in your classroom but you must honour their humanity,' expert says

Premier Christy Clark says there is an "insatiable appetite" for the kinds of anti-bullying initiatives discussed at the Nov 13 summit. Credit: Jeremy Hainsworth photo

BC’s education minister announced Nov 13 that work is underway to strengthen the school districts’ codes of conduct as he addressed an anti-bullying summit in Vancouver.

However, when pressed, neither Don McRae nor Premier Christy Clark could give specifics on how the codes would be strengthened or what role the government would play in their strengthened implementation.

“The codes are good,” Clark tells Xtra. “The problem at the moment is that they’re not consistently being applied across the province.”

Asked what the government’s role should, therefore, be, Clark says, “That’s what we’re doing today,” pointing to the new Erase Bullying program and its mandate to train 15,000 educators across the province.

“Right now they’re hit-and-miss around the district,” McRae says, referring to the mandatory conduct codes introduced by the BC Liberals five years ago.

Each district has its own language, McRae tells Xtra. The government is looking for consistency, he says.

Asked if that means the language of the codes will change, McRae says no.

The strengthening will focus more on gender and racial issues, he says, as well as on establishing protocol to ensure districts have a clear set of actions to follow if bullying takes place.

“It’s making sure we’re giving some kind of direction as to what kinds of codes of conduct” exist, he says. It’s offering a template to ensure issues are addressed and codes are consistently applied, rather than telling districts “here’s the exact wordage.”

Asked if sexual orientation will be specifically addressed, McRae says no.

“We’re not targeting one specific” group, he says; the government wants schools to be safe for everybody.

Though if students feel issues are not being addressed, McRae says, he wants to hear their concerns.

Jennifer Yoon is concerned.

The Vancouver District Students’ Council president says the council sent Clark a letter in February saying they wanted lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans students protected. Nothing happened.

At the summit, Yoon publicly told Clark that queer students cannot simply be brought under a general umbrella of bullying initiatives.

“It’s different,” she says. “The statistics speak for themselves. LGBT students are more likely to commit suicide. There is a need for special protection.

“The mood is still not LGBT-friendly in our schools sometimes,” she adds. “Sometimes I don’t think our voices are being heard. It’s frustrating.”

Schools need to foster a culture of safety that addresses homophobia, says David Butler, who sits on the BC Teachers’ Federation social justice committee.

Butler told the anti-bullying summit that he recently spoke to a school principal who asked how to field objections from parents who might be uncomfortable with gay books in the classroom.

Butler asked if a parent uncomfortable with books about interracial couples would be given the time of day. “Why are we honouring homophobia?” he asks.

He says teachers need to be clear about the values of the school system. “If teachers aren’t clear, students won’t be.”

How will gay-friendly values be incorporated into general school values if they are not raised at events such as the anti-bullying summit, ask some queer groups excluded from the invitation-only event.

Out in Schools (OIS), which combats homophobia by screening gay films and leading discussions in classrooms around the Lower Mainland, sent Clark a letter asking to participate in the anti-bullying summit.

Several groups presented their anti-bullying approaches to the summit.

Despite discussion with the government leading up to the summit, the gay group’s invitation to participate arrived only two days before the event, on the long weekend, says Drew Dennis, executive director of OIS’s parent organization, Out on Screen.

“It’s a little bit disappointing we weren’t invited from the get-go,” Dennis says. “I do feel like it’s a bit of a miss. It’s an anti-bullying program.”

Ryan Clayton, co-coordinator of the Purple Letter Campaign, which saw Education Minister George Abbott receive hundreds of letters last year calling for anti-homophobia policy in schools, followed the conference on Twitter.

He’s not surprised no queer groups were in attendance at the summit. He says it seems that, while other speakers try to add homophobia to the discussion, Clark tries to avoid it.

Overall the summit seemed more focused on reacting to bullying rather than preventing it, Clayton says. “It’s very reactive and almost trying to ignore the underlying causes.”

“What they’ve got is exactly what they need in the reaction piece,” he adds, acknowledging some valuable discussion took place at the summit.

Clark says the summit was intended to find ways to make schools safer places, to create cultures where young people know it’s their job to intervene in bullying situations rather than be bystanders, and to create schools where compassion is the norm.

That was the message that education, conflict and bullying expert Barbara Coloroso brought to the summit.

“You don’t have to like every kid in your classroom, but you must honour their humanity,” Coloroso told the summit.

“Bullying — it’s about utter contempt for another human being,” she says. It’s about turning a person into an it, which then allows the bully to act without compassion.

“This is a learned behaviour,” she notes. “Your children need to see you standing up for your values against injustice, even when it’s uncomfortable.” Then they’ll be more likely to stand up for underdogs themselves, despite the potential cost.

She says the lack of compassion and empathy underlying bullying also underlies hate crimes and genocide. She stresses that the route to bullying and beyond can include unquestioning obedience to authority, the routinization of cruelty and demonizing another human being.

“Intolerance, bigotry and hatred cloaked in the garb of religion is still intolerance, bigotry and hatred,” she adds.

The conference ended with students from throughout the province addressing issues from their individual areas, including school safety, teen suicides and murders.

“Bullying needs to be made not cool,” Timberline Secondary’s Donovan Coates told the summit.

Teachers need to lead, said another student, pointing as an example to a teacher in his school who made a “That’s so gay”-free zone.

Clark thanked them all for their involvement.

“This doesn’t stop here,” she says.

“There is an appetite for the kinds of programs we’re talking about,” she says. “We need to take advantage of that as activists who care deeply about bullying and what it means for kids.

“This has got to be sustainable,” she says. “We have a moment, a moment in time where we can make a difference.”