5 min

Education ministry ‘downloading’ responsibility: Mulligan

Government codes order yields patchwork of proactivity

Credit: Sarah Race

Despite a government order to all BC school boards to develop codes of conduct consistent with the BC Human Rights Code, most districts remain vague about what measures they’re putting in place to ensure their schools are gay-friendly.

According to the education ministry’s Oct 17 order, all school boards in BC must now have codes of conduct including “one or more statements that address the prohibited grounds of discrimination set out in the BC Human Rights Code in respect of discriminatory publication and discrimination in accommodation, service and facility in the school environment.”

But a random sample of 12 school districts indicates that districts are at varying stages of compliance with the order. Some, like Vancouver and Victoria, have been fostering gay-friendly school environments for years, predating the ministry’s order. Others are still revising their codes and have no intention of going beyond the required Human Rights Code reference to proactively address homophobia.

“The policy that the Vancouver School Board (VSB) has is far and away past what the ministry is asking us to do,” says the VSB’s anti-homophobia and diversity consultant Steve Mulligan.

Vancouver’s comprehensive anti-homophobia policy, passed in 2002, specifies “many, many things” that the ministry of education has not even considered, Mulligan says — things like staff training and professional development, both part of his portfolio.

“I’ve just bought a copy for every school of a video called That’s a Family, which includes gay and lesbian-led families, and teaches the kids starting in kindergarten what the word gay means and what the word lesbian means, and those are going out to all of our elementary schools,” Mulligan continues.

“The VSB committed money to buying books and videos and other educational materials for schools, which the code of conduct doesn’t stipulate,” he notes, adding that most districts are unlikely to do more than the government has explicitly required them to do.

“That’s my concern,” says Mulligan. “You can say in this policy, ‘this is what we’re going to do’ but unless it’s backed up by actions and specific funding for buying books and training staff, then what are you really doing?”

In Victoria, Murray Harris, who was hired as a gay-straight alliance consultant about a month ago after the district put up funding for the position, doesn’t expect the ministerial order to affect his district since, like Vancouver, it didn’t wait for government direction to implement its own anti-homophobia policy six years ago.

“We have developed recommendations specifically around lesbian, gay, transgender youth and workers in the school system policy around dealing with education, safety, learning and curricula resources, systemic barriers — and that has been something that has been in place for a while,” he says.

“We have a standing district committee that is composed of both teaching staff and support staff and superintendents and trustees and students who meet on a monthly basis, making recommendations around these issues and preparing activities and looking at the status in the schools of issues for queer youth,” he adds.

Communications manager Doug Strachan points to the Surrey school district’s anti-discrimination and human rights policy, which refers to the BC Human Rights Code, when asked about his district’s compliance with the ministerial order.

Under the policy’s curriculum section, it states that the district is committed to “the development and use of instructional materials for use in all appropriate curriculum areas which reflect the history and contributions of minority groups in Canada.” It also states that the district “shall support multicultural, anti-racist and human rights education infused in curricula” and “review new and existing curricula, curriculum materials and other resources for bias.”

Neither sexual orientation nor gender identity is explicitly mentioned in this section.

“We don’t have and aren’t planning to have the workshops that you described,” Strachan tells Xtra West when asked if the district will undertake staff training and/or professional development around issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Annually our staff from the human resources department meets with each school’s administration, as well as staff reps, and does a presentation based on our policy — anti-discrimination and human rights policy — and then the administration and staff reps take that information into the schools for staff meetings,” says Strachan, adding that all the grounds in the BC Human Rights Code are covered.

“I guess at this point what we have in place we feel addresses all aspects of the grounds as outlined in the BC Human Rights Code and, at least at this point, there isn’t a plan to isolate any particular component of it to focus on,” he says.

Richmond assistant superintendent Jim Martens says his district’s superintendent and some of the board trustees are revising their code of conduct now.

“I can’t see it specifically in this but it’s covered in other supportive documents,” says Martens, pointing to references to the Charter of Rights and the BC Human Rights Code when asked if Richmond’s code of conduct specifically addresses sexual orientation.

In the Central Coast district, schools superintendent Denise Perry says a large committee comprising students, parents, staff and other stakeholders is part of ongoing code of conduct revisions that she hopes will include gender identity as a prohibited ground of discrimination.

“In talking to students, they don’t feel it is an issue,” says Perry. “They feel they’re pretty accepted within the school environment as whole.

“From the parents’ perspective, some of these areas are touchy subjects and some parents aren’t comfortable but even that, we’ve moved beyond.”

Perry says staff have been given training about sexual orientation “as well as the whole harassment training.”

She notes, however, that there are “limited” learning resources for schools when it comes to issues like sexual orientation and gender identity.

“The district librarian is doing a complete overview of all the resources we have and then looking at what’s recommended that we do need to have. We set aside some targeted funds to provide more resources in the schools.”

Haida Gwaii schools superintendent Michael Woods says his district’s code of conduct is “pretty close to the ministry’s code of conduct.”

Woods says staff training around “effective behaviour support systems” is ongoing, and that issues like sexual orientation are part of that process.

Mulligan says the ministerial order requiring that codes reflect the Human Rights Code is “a real step forward,” but suggests the provincial government has erred on the side of political caution so as not alienate its electoral base.

“They’re of course trying to make sure that they’re not going to lose voters from the more conservative side of this, so they’re trying to do it in a way that it’s not too drastic a change,” Mulligan claims, wondering aloud if that approach will translate into action.

“Will teachers actually be talking about the fact that some families have two moms and two dads in the primary [schools]? I don’t know. That sort of thing takes more than legislation. It takes training and it takes professional development,” Mulligan insists.

“I think the ministry supports districts taking initiatives to find what they feel will be a benefit to them in bringing in the codes of conduct,” says education ministry spokesperson Lara Perzoff.

“The boards of education in schools are entrusted through the School Act with authority to establish the codes of conduct for their schools, and the ministry encourages boards of education and schools to review their existing codes or develop new codes, in light of the provincial standard and the unique requirements and characteristics of the communities they serve,” she elaborates.

But Mulligan feels the ministry is “downloading” its responsibility on to the school boards. “They’re saying, ‘We’re not responsible for this now. Each individual school district, or even school, is responsible to do this.'”