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Burnaby Teachers’ Association pushes for anti-homophobia policy

But school district chair says policy should be as broad as possible

A request to develop a policy and action plan dealing specifically with homophobia is now under consideration by the Burnaby School District’s policy committee.

The request came from the Burnaby Teachers’ Association (BTA) earlier this month.

The BTA’s James Sanyshyn says Burnaby does a good job when it comes to addressing other bullying or racism issues but says there’s nothing to deal with sexuality issues in kindergarten through Grade 7.

“Things start at an early age and it’s not being dealt with,” says the gay Burnaby North Secondary teacher.

Of BC’s 60 school districts, only seven have passed comprehensive anti-homophobia policies to date.

The BC Liberal government considered passing legislation ordering all school boards to adopt codes of conduct specifically prohibiting homophobia in 2007, but in the end only ordered the boards to develop codes consistent with the BC Human Rights Code.

Following a 2006 human rights complaint settlement with Peter and Murray Corren, the Ministry of Education also introduced an elective, queer-friendly social justice course that districts could offer, and promised to regularly review the province’s curriculum with an eye to queer inclusion.

The social justice course has been a battleground in some school districts such as Abbotsford which initially pulled the course. Abbotsford now says students can take it this fall provided they get their parents’ permission to enroll.

Sanyshyn would like to see the Burnaby district mandate the formation of gay-straight alliances (GSA) in schools as part of the proposed anti-homophobia policy.

A comprehensive policy could also address the provision of counselling services for students, teachers and support staff struggling with sexuality questions or gender identity issues, he suggests.

Sensitivity training on LGBT issues is needed for school staffs, he says.

Sanyshyn is critical of the lack of leadership from Victoria which, under the Corren agreement, is supposed to consult on gay education issues. “How’s that being communicated to teachers?” he asks. “I haven’t seen a copy.”

The purchasing of appropriate curriculum support material would also be helpful, he adds.

The Burnaby school district needs to reach out into the greater community for support on queer issues, he says. He suggests liaising with GAB Youth Services, The Centre and gay Burnaby-Douglas MP Bill Siksay.

The BTA has asked for an advisory committee to be set up to deal with homophobia issues in the district.

Sanyshyn says it would be composed of students, teachers, administrators, support staff, parents and interested community members

Burnaby School District board of education chair Diana Mumford says the process for creating the policy is lengthy.

She says the committee will examine similar policies from other boards as it does its work.

Once the policy committee work is complete, its report will go to the board and then to the public for consultation.

“We always try to make sure it’s as broad as possible, covering all areas,” she says.

Making policy too rigid means students could slip through the cracks, she explains.

“We need to make sure we meet the needs of our children no matter what community they come from,” she says, noting intolerance in many forms can begin at home.

Sanyshyn says Mumford’s comments are indicative of the board’s conservative approach to controversial issues.

“We can’t force the board to do anything,” he says. “It doesn’t sound as if they’re going to do anything as inclusive as we’re asking — it sounds like they’re going to do what they’re comfortable with. It’s disappointing.”

“We have this leadership void at the top,” he adds.

Sanyshyn says the BTA would like the board to use the Vancouver district’s anti-homophobia as a model.

Gay Vancouver teacher Glen Hansman was involved in getting a policy and action plan in Vancouver in 2004, the same year Victoria developed its policy.

“If Burnaby’s going to start doing the work too, that’s fantastic,” Hansman says.

“The core part is the action plan,” he says. “Policies just sit on the shelf and gather dust.”

Sanyshyn agrees. A policy alone lacks teeth until there’s an action plan to bring it alive, he says.

In May 2006, the Southeast Kootenay school district became the third in BC to voluntarily introduce an anti-homophobia policy. That policy prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender, encourages all members of the school community to welcome, include and support everyone regardless of sexual orientation or gender, and instructs the superintendent to ensure all schools in the district implement practices that support the new policy.

The Gulf Islands, Prince Rupert, North Vancouver and Revelstoke have all implemented anti-homophobia policies as well.