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BC schools still not protecting queer students: Hansman

Some districts still allowing parents to pull children from 'objectionable' courses

MOUNTAIN OF DATA. BC education minister Shirley Bond hasn't replied to education activist Glen Hansman's (above) offer to share the results of FOI requests he filed to determine BC's schools progress in protecting queer students from discrimination. Credit: John Inch photo

More than a year after the BC legislature passed safe schools legislation, Glen Hansman says he’s disappointed that several school districts have yet to change their codes of conduct to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Hansman also says it’s “unacceptable” that some districts are still allowing parents to pull their children out of any classes they find morally objectionable — despite government policy to the contrary.

Hansman, a gay education activist, is also president of the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers’ Association. His statements are based on freedom of information requests he filed under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) in March.

In a Jul 3 letter to BC education minister Shirley Bond, Hansman notes that his FIPPA request findings indicate that implementation of the ministerial order regarding school codes of conduct is “only beginning to occur in the majority of school districts around the province.”

Hansman says ministerial guidance is needed at both elementary and secondary levels to push the districts to change their codes.

“Many school districts provided me with copies of all their schools’ codes of conduct — often quite elaborate, but none of them containing references to the BC Human Rights Code, characteristics delineated under the Code, or any other component required by 6(a) of Ministerial Order 276/07,” Hansman states in his letter to the minister.

“Many others provided their district-level policy on codes of conduct, not seeming to understand the requirement for each school to have a code of conduct developed in keeping with provincial standards,” he adds.

Hansman notes that in one case the superintendent of schools for the Nisga’a district indicated that his district “does not have documents that would demonstrate compliance” with the ministerial order.

“While there are three or four school districts that are moving ahead and they seem to understand what the new legislation is about, the majority of them just seem to be confused,” Hansman writes.

The ministerial order states in part that school boards must ensure that codes of conduct contain “one or more statements that address the prohibited grounds of discrimination set out in the BC Human Rights Code.”

Hansman says Bond has not replied to his letter, in which he offered to provide her with copies of all the district responses to his freedom of information request.

“I find it discouraging at this point,” Hansman says.

“I know it’s difficult for the ministry to track down this information.

“There’s so many school districts and so many people involved but someone has gone and done it for them and compiled it nicely,” he notes.

“I have all the data from school districts. I’m willing to share the full documentation with them,” he offers.

“I’m doing it not to be accusatory,” he adds. “I understand how bureaucracy works. It takes a long time for change to happen within the system.”

When first contacted Sep 4 for comment about Hansman’s letter, education ministry media spokesperson Jeff Rud would only say that a reply was made to Hansman’s letter.

However, two follow-up attempts made by email did not yield any further information about the content of that reply. 

Attempts to schedule a phone interview with the minister to discuss how implementation of the codes was proceeding also proved unsuccessful. The minister would only take and respond to questions by email through Rud.

In response to a first round of emailed questions, Bond states that safe schools legislation “has helped ensure that all boards of education encourage and enforce standards for appropriate behaviour in their schools.

“These standards focus on prevention of problems and use school-wide efforts to build ‘community’ — fostering respect, inclusion, fairness and equity. And these district codes of conduct are monitored by the Ministry through our Superintendents of Achievement,” Bond told Xtra West by email.

A random check of school districts shows that they are in various stages of code of conduct revision.

“We sent out information back in spring to school principals to make sure that the ministerial order was in place,” says John Phipps, assistant superintendent of schools in the Nanaimo/Ladysmith school district.

“We cut and paste the requirement right out of the ministerial order and sent that out to the principals,” he adds, noting that he expects the changes to be reflected in the codes this school year.

In contrast, in email correspondence to Hansman dated Mar 13, Peace River South school superintendent Bill Deith indicated that his district had “not yet updated our Codes of Conduct to be in compliance with the new regulations” but promised that this would be done for the current school year.

Calls to both Deith and assistant schools superintendent Rob Dennis to ascertain where the revision process had reached were not returned as Xtra West went to press.

For Hansman, having codes of conduct in place is only part of the solution to ending discrimination against queers in schools.

He sees curriculum inclusive of queer content as a necessary complement to the anti-discrimination message of the codes of conduct.

“Both pieces need to be there. You have to have the education piece to accompany the anti-discrimination piece,” he maintains. “You can’t just have a code of conduct that’s never discussed. It’s meaningless.”

Hansman is also concerned about parents pulling their children out of queer-friendly classes.

In another letter to the education minister dated Jul 4, Hansman says his FIPPA research uncovered at least six school districts that won’t compel students to attend classes that their parents find offensive.

Allowing students to opt out of mandatory curriculum would flout the ministry’s Alternative Delivery Policy that has been in place since 2000 and that was publicly reiterated in 2006, Hansman says.

The policy states that students cannot be removed from mandatory classes except for Health and Career Education from Kindergarten to Grade 9 and Planning 10, which they can fulfill through alternative learning programs. The alternative program option does not apply to any other provincial curriculum.

Hansman says he received responses from districts like Saanich, Sunshine Coast and Nechako Lakes that they would not compel students to attend classes their parents deem objectionable.

The Sunshine Coast school district sent Hansman a letter signed by then-board chair Greg Russell and dated Nov 20, 2006 that it would not force its students to participate in “any activity or class which they or their parents find objectionable.”

But new board chair Silas White says that would be illegal.

“We have to follow the ministry guidelines as does every single district in the province.”

He says he’d be surprised if some districts would allow students to be pulled from classes.

“Not in our district,” says White when asked if he is aware if any parents have expressed concern about queer-friendly curriculum content.

He also says there is no indication that teachers would be reluctant to cover queer content if and when it might come up.

But Saanich school district superintendent Keven Elder says that situations where there are concerns about course content would be a matter of negotiation with the family.

“There isn’t a formulaic kind of response to this. This isn’t something where we say, ‘Absolutely, one must do a particular thing’ — that a teacher must teach a child contrary to what the parents want, or the parent has the absolute right to exclude their child from a learning activity. Every one of those situations is delicate and needs to be respected,” Elder says.

As for the ministry’s Alternative Delivery Policy, Elder says the fact that the policy is limited to certain health and career planning courses doesn’t mean that “the concept doesn’t have to be respected in other curriculum areas.”

“What we have not had a history of doing — I don’t think anywhere in the system — has been to say you’re not allowed to do that,” he says, referring to parents’ requests to pull students out of other classes.

In fact, he says, the district has been letting parents remove their children for years.

But NDP education critic Norm Macdonald says it’s not practical “at any level” to have students pulled out of other segments of the curriculum.

“The idea is that it’s integrated into a program. It’s not like a one-off piece,” he says.

“And then you have the other part — the culture of the school as one of tolerance and understanding and knowledge. All of that is something that is fully integrated. It should be seamless,” says Macdonald.

Mindful of BC’s upcoming city elections in November, Hansman says the main task for the queer community is to vote wisely when selecting school board officials.

“Regardless of what party it is, or what city you live in, people need to be conscientious about the people they’re putting in there — not only what they’re promising to do but what their track record has been,” he urges.