3 min

Chalkboard promises

What good is a school equity policy if we don't use it?

ACTIVATE. Margot Francis says policy means nothing if people don't use it. Credit: Joshua Meles

As many of us head back to school, some people wonder how the Toronto District School Board’s new equity policies work in day-to-day situations when students, teachers and parents actually address “controversial” issues (read sexual orientation) in classrooms across the city. How exactly do these dry policy documents protect queers?

About five years ago, a student doing a project on parenting approached her teacher to check about inviting a lesbian parent to speak to the class. The teacher panicked, worried at the kind of reaction she’d encounter from parents in their North Toronto neighbourhood.

Both student and teacher checked the Toronto board’s equity policy and found sexual orientation was included. The student had every right to invite a lesbian parent in for her project. The principal was still nervous about the lesbian speaker, and suggested that the school write to parents to warn them about the upcoming visit.

With the backing of the policy, the student was able to argue that no other minority parents would be treated in a similar fashion, nor would they warrant a letter warning of their arrival to speak in class. The student won and the class visit went ahead without warning, all as a result of the board’s inclusive policy, which provided protection on the basis of race, class, disability, gender and sexual orientation.

That was then. When the six smaller boards of education merged to form the current Toronto District School Board (TDSB) a couple of years ago it was, perhaps not surprisingly, the inclusion of sexual orientation which precipitated a major controversy.

Just to put the new policy in context: up until 1987, the Toronto Board Of Education wouldn’t allow out lesbian and gay speakers into their classrooms, fearing they’d proselytize students into a life of sexual vice.

Only through the concerted efforts of a broad range of activists, many of whom were primarily anti-racist and feminist educators, did the board relent. It agreed in 1992 to include sexual orientation in what became the first inclusive equity policy at any school board across Canada.

This inclusive policy remained in place until the creation of the mega-board, which needed a policy of its own. While many believed that the best course of action was to use a broadly-defined equity policy as a model, others suggested that that each minority group wanting recognition should advocate solely for its own rights.

During the discussion, it was no surprise that sexual orientation was the issue most often left off the list. But after two years of intense lobbying, an inclusive new equity policy was approved in December 1999. Despite efforts to divide us, activists from a range of different communities worked together, producing a new policy that protects from discrimination based on race, gender, class, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity.

We even made some gains: as a result of activism by the transexual and transgender community, the big advance in the new mega-board policy is the inclusion of gender identity.

It’s too early to tell how the new policy will work in practice. But the fight for an inclusive equity policy did bring home how crucial it is for different minority communities to work together. It is only these fragile alliances that can protect us all.

Unfortunately, the debate also brought home the importance of money. The policy was approved along with a budget which gutted funding for the front line staff who actually do pro-active educational work on racism, sexism and homophobia, and who ensure that complaints in these areas are handled consistently and fairly.

The old Toronto board had four staff responsible for handling human rights complaints; the new board, three times the size of the old one, has funded only three positions.

Policy is only as strong as the people who activate it and make it come to life. In fact, it is only the willingness of students and staff to go up against the school administration that ensures queer issues are dealt with fairly.

But are we willing to continue to fight for all of us? When a child comes home from school with a story about school yard bullying that smacks of racism or class bias, parents need to get involved, just as they would challenge the everyday epithets about fags or the assumptions about what makes a “normal” family.

We’ve won an inclusive new equity policy based on our ability to work across differences, but we’ve lost most of the people whose job it was to ensure schools were accountable. So the process of activating the new policy falls to us. How are we, as students, teachers and parents, going to make this policy live and breath for us all?