2 min

Even high schools evolve

Isolated lesbian drop-out returns as a community leader

SAFER SCHOOLS. Kia Rainbow and Mike Neill take steps to support queer youth in schools. Credit: Rob Thomas

For Kia Rainbow, high school was a miserable experience.

So organizing the May 14 Safer Schools for Rainbow Youth forum at her old high school was very special for her.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, with United Way support, hosted the well-attended, day-long forum at Confederation High School, providing GLBTTQ workshops, resources and information on making Ottawa schools safer for queer youth to administrators, teachers, students and community partners.

The event was something of a homecoming for Rainbow who now works with the Youth Services Bureau. She was a student at Confederation but dropped out at 16. In a moving opening address, Rainbow discussed the isolation and depression she had felt as a closeted lesbian youth at the school when she left in 1976. Rainbow, later returned to school, earning a masters degree in social work.

“To be here, personally, is really neat because I am coming back to where I left, so that feels really good,” says Rainbow. “This issue is close to my heart and I only hope that other schools are starting to move along.”

Mike Neill, executive officer of instruction with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, believes area schools are making tremendous progress.

“We’re absolutely going in the right direction,” says Neill. “We as a school board are absolutely on side – we want our gay and lesbian kids and families to see and hear that. And we want the community at large to know that they are welcome and embraced.”

Neill is a former principal of Merivale High School and was a leader in making the forum possible.

Rainbow says there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done, and the forum is just the start. But she says she is very excited by the momentum it has created, and its success has left her very optimistic about the immediate future.

“The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board has made a commitment to this issue,” she says. “There is no doubt about it. We’re leaving here today with action plans. We have a commitment from the board to ensure that this will start to be addressed in September.”

Rainbow’s enthusiasm is shared by many of the student participants.

“It’s excellent that something like this even exists now. I can’t imagine having anything like this, even five years ago when I entered high school. I wouldn’t have though it was possible,” says Margaret Milne, 19, a former Merivale High School student and founding member of the school’s gay-straight alliance.

The event began with a keynote address by educator Vanessa Russell from the Toronto school board’s Triangle Program, followed by workshops for students, teachers and administrators.

In the afternoon, participants developed action plans to bring back and implement in their own schools. Educators also received a resource manual including, among other things, sexual diversity lesson plans, teaching resources and select studies.