“I think there’s a tendency for people to ignore school board [elections],” says queer Vancouver School Board trustee Jane Bouey.
But that’s a mistake, she continues. The queer community should pay attention to school boards because that’s where the power lies to make schools gay-friendly, she says.
Trustees have the power to create anti-homophobia policy, encourage gay-straight alliances, budget for initiatives such as anti-homophobia workshops for teachers and administrators, and add positive images of queers to curriculum, Bouey explains.
The Vancouver School Board, for example, passed a comprehensive anti-homophobia policy last year.
The Victoria school board enacted similar policy slightly before Vancouver. Charley Beresford, straight ally and chair of the Victoria school board, is credited with single-handedly making gay-friendly schools a priority in her district.
But Vancouver and Victoria are minorities among BC’s school boards. Most school boards in the province are far from implementing comprehensive gay-friendly policies. They don’t even explicitly prohibit homophobic harassment in their schools.
“Surely we’re at a point in 2005 where you can talk about more than just making schools safe,” comments Bouey. “They should be more than safe, they should be places where all our students feel their lives are reflected in what they’re being taught, where they’re comfortable, not just safe.”
Bouey is hoping a recent resolution by the BC Trustees Association encouraging BC’s school boards to implement gay-friendly policies will have a domino effect across the province.
“It’s like a stone in the pond. The ripples carry on and if you get enough ripples, you get a wave,” agrees Beresford, whose son is gay.
“We can’t rely on gay-straight alliances to be the only way to change the school culture,” says James Chamberlain, a gay teacher who sits on the Vancouver School Board’s queer advisory committee with Bouey. “All the adults in the education system have a responsibility to queer and questioning youth.”
Chamberlain cites the Vancouver and Victoria school boards as “shining examples” of what school trustees can accomplish.
The Surrey and North Vancouver school districts, in contrast, are particularly troubling, says Steve LeBel who, like Chamberlain, is a member of the Gay and Lesbian Educators of BC (GALE).
Infamous for its protracted battle to ban three gay-friendly children’s books, the Surrey school board recently cancelled a student production of The Laramie Project claiming the play, about the murder of gay Laramie, Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, had too much sex, violence and foul language.
“Senior staff reviewed the script and recognized a lot of powerful messages around tolerance and diversity and saw value in that,” Surrey school district communications manager Doug Strachan told Xtra West Sep 22. “At the same time, the profanity and passages discussing jail rape were by most people’s standards inappropriate for children.”
LeBel would also like to see voters in North Vancouver grill potential and incumbent trustees about their stance on the case of Azmi Jubran, a former Handsworth Secondary School student.
In April, the BC Court of Appeal ordered the school board to pay damages awarded to Jubran by the provincial human rights tribunal for failing to stop homophobic bullying and harassment he suffered while a student, along with his legal expenses. The North Vancouver school board tried to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada. (The court refused to hear the case, Oct 20.)
“The insurer for all school districts has made the decision [to pursue the case to the Supreme Court] because of limits on liability,” Ken Neale, the Safe and Caring Schools Coordinator for the North Vancouver school district, told Xtra West in June.
LeBel and Chamberlain are urging voters to attend school trustee candidate meetings.
“Ask pointy questions and don’t be shy,” says Chamberlain. “The more people who express concern, the more our community makes it an issue.”
In Vancouver, a school trustees candidates meeting is scheduled for Nov 6, at John Oliver High School.
“Put them on the spot and say, ‘What have you done or what are you going to do?'” says LeBel, adding, “You don’t have to be queer to do that.”
“Trustees are closest to the ground and that’s where you can make a difference,” concludes Beresford, who is running again for the Victoria school board Nov 19.