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Education minister’s silence ‘chilling’

Safe Schools bill on hold until fall

Though the Safe Schools bill did not pass before the legislature rose for the summer May 18, Vancouver-Burrard’s gay MLA vows he can get the job done when the legislature resumes in October.

“I didn’t feel this confident about it yesterday,” Lorne Mayencourt admitted to Xtra West May 19, one day after the legislative session ended.

Mayencourt introduced the private member’s bill on Apr 24. If passed, the bill will require school districts across BC to establish mandatory codes of conduct prohibiting discrimination, intentional or not, based on a number of grounds, including actual and perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.

The bill didn’t make it to second reading.

However, because the legislature only adjourned for the summer, the bill will remain on the order paper for fall and will not have to be reintroduced from scratch at that time.

Gay education activists had hoped the bill would be enacted in time for the new school year come September. Frustrated, they blame the government for lacking leadership when it comes to safety for queer students.

“It is probably in their best interest to let the matter die as quietly as possible,” says Steve LeBel of Gay and Lesbian Educators of BC (GALE).

“Without government leadership, I don’t know if this bill has any life to it,” adds James Chamberlain, also of GALE.

Jane Bouey, a member of the Vancouver School Board’s queer advisory committee, personally e-mailed all 79 MLAs on May 8, asking them to support the bill.

Bouey spoke with NDP education critic John Horgan and NDP MLA David Chudnovsky who, she says, were both supportive. She also heard back via e-mail from Liberals Richard Lee and former Prince George school trustee John Rustad, who supported the bill as well. And an assistant to NDP MLA Charlie Wyse responded that Wyse “is in general agreement with the intent of the bill,” is awaiting the actual bill, “and will comment on it further at that time.”

The other 73 MLAs offered little concrete support–if they responded at all.

Government House Leader Mike de Jong e-mailed Bouey: “I will take your concerns into account when considering this act.”

Premier Gordon Campbell’s office responded in part, “I assure you that our government strongly supports school safety, and we will consider all options that enhance student protection… We encourage all boards to review their policies to ensure that issues pertaining to discrimination, harassment and violence are effectively addressed.”

Concluded the premier’s office: “The ministry has also distributed Diversity in BC Schools–A Framework as a companion publication to the Safe, Caring and Orderly Schools guide. This framework assists school boards in meeting their obligations under the BC Human Rights Code and other legislation.”

Gay education activists criticized the Safe, Caring and Orderly Schools guide and its companion publication when they were released in 2004 for failing to explicitly order school districts to address homophobia.

Education minister Shirley Bond did not respond to Bouey’s letter by press time. LeBel and Chamberlain say they did not receive responses from Bond either, nor did any other GALE representatives.

Bouey says the minister’s silence on the bill–along with the “lame and inadequate response” of the premier–is “chilling.”

“It raises the question of whether the education minister or the government finds the issue important,” says Bouey.

While Horgan agrees the government seems reluctant to support the bill, he notes, “If the premier is of a view that it shouldn’t go forward, that would surprise me.”

Horgan says he and the NDP “support the bill in principle,” adding that the NDP would like to see an increase in school counselling services, which he considers the “frontline” in combating bullying in schools. He credits Mayencourt for having done a good job on the bill and promises, “I’ll be at his side supporting him all the way.”

Horgan and Mayencourt plan to spend the next month speaking with parents’ associations around the province about the Safe Schools bill. They will be travelling with the education committee and will plug the bill when not dealing with committee business. In September, Mayencourt and Horgan will visit schools to speak with students and teachers about the bill, too.

Mayencourt notes he did not receive correspondence from GALE until the day before the legislature broke for summer. “Why didn’t they make their voices heard louder and sooner?” he wonders.

So far, Mayencourt says he has received 186 e-mails supporting the Safe Schools bill, compared to the “tens of thousands” of e-mails he says he received supporting his first private member’s bill, the Safe Streets Act. He insists a similar outpouring of public support will get the government onside. Otherwise, he says, a private member’s bill “has a snowball’s chance in hell.”

Ultimately, Mayencourt says it will be the support of students, teachers and parents that will make the difference. “I will get the support we need and the government will move quickly on it,” he promises.

“I can get this done.”

Meanwhile, without direction from the government, the Surrey school district’s Standing Advisory Committee for Learning Resources rejected two more books featuring queer families on May 9. Saturday is Patty Day, about two lesbians divorcing, and Jennifer Has Two Daddies were rejected by a vote of 6-8.

The committee had a tie vote on Mom and Mum are Getting Married, so the ultimate decision now rests with the superintendent, says Chamberlain, who submitted all three books for approval. At press time, there was no decision. The committee is not reconvening until fall.

The committee did, however, approve 123: A Family Counting Book, featuring gay and lesbian parents. But the book is out of print and unavailable for purchase.

In April, King and King, a gay-themed fairy tale also presented to the committee by Chamberlain as a learning resource, was rejected as “too sophisticated” for children in kindergarten through Grade 3.