Edmonton, Alberta’s largest school district, has become the first in the province to vote in favour of creating an explicit, stand-alone anti-homophobia policy.
The Edmonton Public School Board voted 8-1 on March 9 to develop a policy that “affirms the district’s commitment to providing a welcoming environment, free of discrimination and harassment, for all students and employees who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual/transgendered and queer (LGBTQ).”
Board chair Dave Colburn says the policy’s passage is a meaningful step in shifting the district’s culture toward something more welcoming and accepting of sexual diversity.
“It’s not like turning a light switch on with a perfect world overnight,” he adds, “but it’s an important step forward.”
Colburn says the new policy is a framework that will be fleshed out by a committee and administrative staff, which will create regulations and specific guidelines on how schools and staff are expected to implement the policy. He expects the final version will come back to the board for a vote within the next couple of months.
He credits what he describes as a youthful and progressive board for the change.
“We have six new trustees on board and three of them are 30 years old or under,” he says. “They brought to the board nothing less than a huge appetite for progressive governance – nothing sacred – everything is on the table for review.”
The new board, elected last November, wasted little time in tackling homophobia in schools, Colburn says.
“Two trustees asked for reports about what our current practices were to support our LGBTQ population and compared it to best practices across the country in how to support our LGBTQ population,” Colburn notes.
“We had the opportunity to review policies in Vancouver and Victoria.”
Kris Wells, a researcher at the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services, describes the board’s decision as “groundbreaking” in the context of a province he says previously considered itself the Bible belt of Canada.
He points out that the Government of Alberta didn’t include sexual orientation in its human rights legislation until it lost the 1998 Supreme Court case Vriend v Alberta, while in 2009 it passed a law allowing parents to pull their children out of classes if they included lessons on sex, religion or sexual orientation.
“This [board] decision shows that in this sea of conservatism, we can work towards social change, that we can believe in the principles of equality, democracy and social justice in our schools,” Wells says.
“This policy becomes a lighthouse policy; it becomes a beacon not only to other school boards but to those students who may be LGBTQ or questioning in rural communities, saying, ‘Wow, if this can happen in Edmonton public schools it can happen in my school.’
“I hope this creates a domino effect in other school boards,” he adds.
The lone dissenting vote came from trustee Catherine Ripley, who believes the policy duplicates an existing policy that includes mention of homophobia.
“In November we passed a policy called the Safe, Caring and Respectful Learning Environments,” she says. “Within that policy it states that there will be no harassment, bullying, discrimination, etcetera, for people regardless of sex, sexual orientation, race and a whole host of reasons of why people get bullied.”
Ripley says that policy, which was initiated by the previous board but approved by the current board, is currently in development.
“Last night I confirmed with the superintendent. I asked him whether the regulations would deal specifically with LGTBQ youth and staff, and he confirmed that work is being done already,” she contends.
But Wells, who also works part-time as a programming consultant specializing in sexual orientation and gender identity for the school district, says that a policy specifically addressing LGBTQ issues is necessary.
“Research and experience have told us that these catch-all policies seldom work effectively,” he says. “This was more than just providing inclusion of the sexuality minority community and the trans community in an already existing policy – this was sending a strong message of equality, and it’s the purpose and role of public education. You can’t underestimate the power of sending this message in a very conservative province.”
Despite her nay vote Ripley says she will support the new policy.
“The board has made its decision and I am on the policy committee, and I look forward to working on it,” she says. “As I said, I’m firmly committed to the idea of welcoming everyone into our schools.”