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Four charged in Alberta queer bashing

Activists call for anti-homophobia policy

In mid-October, a 15-year-old girl was the victim of an alleged homophobic attack by a group of other girls outside a high school in rural Alberta.

Four girls under 18 were charged with assault and one was also charged with uttering threats in connection with the incident.

Neither the alleged victim nor the accused can be named under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

Although the alleged victim doesn’t identify as queer, she lives with her mother and her mother’s same-sex partner in Battle River, Alberta. The girl told the Edmonton Journal in November that one of the alleged assailants taunted her with homophobic epithets for weeks leading up to the attack and even threatened to kill her.

“She told me I was a dyke, like my mom,” the girl told the Journal.

She alleges she was swarmed by a group of as many as 18 teens. While some in the group attacked, she says, others held her friends back, preventing them from helping her. She says she was kicked, punched and kneed in the head.

Battle River school division superintendent Warren Phillips told the Edmonton Journal he didn’t believe homophobia played a role in the attack.

“We do have a number of students who are openly gay,” he told the Journal. “I don’t want to sound like a bigot, but what we have here are some very disturbed young people who say things without really understanding what they’re saying.”

But the alleged victim in this case insists homophobic comments and jokes are a “constant problem” at her school.

Despite repeated attempts, Phillips did not return Xtra West’s calls before press time. But in a Dec 3 letter to the Edmonton Journal, Philips wrote that the school administration notified the police and subsequently expelled the students involved.

“While we cannot speak on behalf of rural communities as a whole, the Battle River School Division would like to state, unequivocally, that we in no way encourage or condone a homophobic culture in our school environment,” he wrote.

But not encouraging or condoning homophobic harassment is not the same as discouraging or condemning it.

“They can’t just be reactive, they must be proactive,” says Kris Wells, a homophobia and education researcher at the University of Alberta. Wells, who recently completed a study on school anti-homophobia policies with colleague Andre Grace, says the alleged victim’s mother contacted him months before the incident to ask for advice on how to protect her daughter from homophobic harassment.

“This is a case where there is a history of bullying and harassment because of the fact that [the alleged victim] has two lesbian moms,” says Wells. “This tragic event is the culmination of a series of events where the school board had the opportunity to intervene.”

Wells is surprised by what he calls the Battle River school board’s “level of denial” that homophobia played a part in the alleged attack.

“School boards are very conservative entities,” he says. “If they acknowledge homophobia exists, then they have to do something about it.”

As school administrators remain silent on the issue, students and family affected by homophobia in schools remain invisible, fearing for their safety, explains Wells. In turn, school boards are unsure of how to proceed and fear doing anything that may prompt a backlash from other parents.

“It looks like the only way to effect change is to take school boards to court,” says Wells. And he hopes the Battle River case will be the first link in “a chain of litigation by students and parents across the country.”

“I don’t think this would have occurred if proper supports had been in place,” says Egale president Gemma Schlamp-Hickey. Egale’s education committee is currently running a safer schools campaign, encouraging school boards to create anti-homophobia policies.

“It would be helpful to see something in place that’s LGBT specific,” she continues. “In naming it, people will ultimately be able to handle it better.”

Schlamp-Hickey agrees school boards are conservative when it comes to sexuality. While working with a sexual health centre in her native Newfoundland and Labrador, she worked on a survey on LGBT youth.

“I had to jump through hoops to get it out to schools,” she says, noting the school board “grilled” her about including questions about sexual orientation, even though the survey was confidential.

Like Schlamp-Hickey, Wells would like to see a comprehensive anti-homophobia policy adopted in Battle River and at schools across Canada, ensuring a climate that isn’t just safe for queer and questioning students, but inclusive. But he remains pessimistic that anything will change in Battle River anytime soon.

“The school board has responded to the criminal aspects of the incident and that’s all they’ve vowed to do. This is a missed opportunity to create safe and caring schools for all students,” Wells concludes.