“We sort of naively assumed we’d start in September/October and write the policy and send it to the board, and they would adopt it,” Bruce Curtis says of the Comox school district’s newly minted anti-homophobia policy.
“It doesn’t work that way,” he acknowledges three years later.
From its conception in the 2008/2009 academic year until its unanimous approval by the school board on Jan 25, Comox’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Policy was scrutinized, revised and redrafted multiple times by various district stakeholders.
But having a broad consultation with people who “may have comments on this policy” was part of the strategy from the get-go, says Curtis, the Social Justice Committee chair of the Comox District Teachers Association (CDTA).
One draft lingered with the school board’s policy committee for a year and a half. “There was some nervousness among the senior administration,” Curtis recalls.
One trustee initially couldn’t see why an anti-homophobia policy was needed with an anti-bullying policy already in place, while a former superintendent was concerned about the policy’s price tag, Curtis says.
It became quite obvious that if the policy was going to be implemented, “some very strong, high-level support” had to be leveraged, or it wasn’t going to work,” he adds.
Curtis says the CDTA decided to personalize the process. Students, parents of gay students, and gay parents of straight students who had faced discrimination were tapped to tell their stories.
Enter Gerald Walton, a former Comox district student, now an education professor at Lakehead University, who held a workshop for senior administration.
Walton put up pictures of Azmi Jubran and Hamed Nastoh, who were both subjected to homophobic bullying in their schools in the late 1990s. He asked if his audience recognized Jubran, who took his school district all the way to the BC Supreme Court for ignoring his plight, or Nastoh, who committed suicide.
“There were no hands going up for any of these pictures,” a still incredulous Curtis tells Xtra. “And these are the high-profile cases,” he points out.
“They honest to God did not know. They simply didn’t have the current events news to know what the consequences of not dealing with this issue were.”
Curtis says Walton, who is gay, also spoke of his own high school experience of being taunted and physically jostled.
The presentations led to a change of heart in those who felt that generic anti-bullying policy was enough, Curtis says.
The new anti-homophobia policy applies to all Comox-area schools, including alternative and distance education schools and all employees, encompassing secretarial, clerical, support and janitorial, teaching staff and senior administration, as well as those who contract with schools.
The policy provides for a Pride advisory committee drawn from the queer community in the regional school district.
It also calls for an implementation committee charged with developing measures to handle complaints or charges under the policy and the response required.
There’s also a requirement that queer content be considered in curriculum development, Curtis says.
“All schools, all teachers are encouraged to consider ways in which the issues of gender stereotyping and sexual orientation are raised across the curriculum,” he adds. “It’s very comprehensive.”
“It’s been necessary for a long time,” Comox School Board chair Susan Barr says of the new policy.
Barr remembers her daughter, now 20, came to her when she was six or seven and asked what “that’s so gay” meant.
“People have been using terms like that, being discriminatory towards other people for many, many years, and finally we’re at a place now where we had a school board that was willing to embrace this,” she says.
In the past, Barr recalls, Comox has had “an interesting community where people were not so open.”
“There’s been quite a shift in our community, I’d say,” she notes. “Everything came together at the right time, right place, the right set of people.”
She points to a parent’s appeal to a previous school board to do something about homophobia, the election two years ago of school board trustees sensitive to the issue, and the presence of a couple of gay-straight alliances in senior secondary schools as some of the factors that have led to the attitude shift in the district.
“I’m immensely proud that our board passed this policy and immensely proud that it was developed collaboratively by our senior staff, by members of the community, and that’s a cross–section of people who are straight and people that are gay and lesbian,” Barr adds.
“I was just really moved to see after three years of work, that we got it right, that the strategy was right, and it’s in place,” Curtis says.
“Now we need to move forward to make sure it’s implemented correctly.”
Comox is the 12th school district out of 60 in BC to implement an explicit anti-homophobia policy.