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Gay committee to tackle homophobia in Burnaby schools

'It was time for the district to take this on': teacher

A gay committee set up to combat homophobia in the Burnaby school district will finally meet for the first time March 24, almost nine months after the school board voted unanimously to establish it.

The school board passed a motion to strike the committee June 23 last year.

“There were a couple months there where we weren’t kept in the loop,” says Burnaby Teachers’ Association officer-at-large James Sanyshyn, one of two teachers who went before the school board last May to make the case for having the committee.

“That being said, we are extremely pleased the committee is meeting and we’re getting the work started,” he told Xtra on March 18.

Sanyshyn can’t say why it’s taken the board so long to actually form the committee.

School board chairperson Diana Mumford says it was not a long waiting period “in the scheme of things in a board.”

She says the board’s education committee had to discuss the new committee’s composition, and there were also the intervening summer and Christmas holidays to take into consideration.

Sanyshyn’s co-presenter, secondary school counsellor Debra Sutherland, is disappointed the school board didn’t consult with her or Sanyshyn more on the committee’s makeup.

But Mumford says deciding committee composition is a board mandate.

“On anything that we create, presenters don’t get that sort of opportunity to start deciding that sort of thing,” Mumford says.

“They are from the teachers’ organization and the teachers’ organization had a representative at the education committee who offered forward their list of who they wanted on there, and that was discussed, and so the committee was set by the people at the education committee.”

Sanyshyn and Sutherland, who are both gay and are on the new committee, also expressed disappointment that community partners like PFLAG, Out in Schools and Gab Youth have not been included on the committee.

“What they’ve told us is that at the first meeting, they may examine that absence and they may recommend amongst themselves that that might be an important part, either to make them committee members, or at least presenters from the outside,” Sanyshyn says.

Having community partners like Out in Schools and GAB Youth with experience in anti-homophobia education on the committee would be helpful, Sutherland argues. “They’re community people with lots of information.”

Mumford says the core committee membership comprises people from the district’s community and schools, “which is who we are serving, with the ability to add other resources as required.”

“I think [the committee] really needs to move forward. I think we need to give it a chance as to the set-up that we have and that that conversation about who’s there in attendance and the participation and all of that needs to be [part of] the discussion of the committee that’s involved,” she adds.

If there are concerns, then those can be brought to the board, she notes.

Sanyshyn says school district support and leadership is needed to coordinate the already “excellent individual efforts going on around the district” to address homophobia – efforts that are driven in some cases by teachers, students and administration staff.

“Burnaby is a really socially progressive community,” he says, but “I can unequivocally say that [homophobic bullying] does take place in our schools on a daily basis.

“As a teacher, I’ve experienced it directed toward me, directed toward other students. I’ve heard it yelled down hallways.”

“It was time for the district to take this on as an issue and say, ‘We want to support all of our students,'” Sanyshyn continues. “That’s why we felt compelled to do the request and the presentation.”

Moving forward, Sanyshyn says he’d like the new committee to develop an action plan that reaches into the district’s almost 60 schools and other work sites.

“The action plan has to address all the levels of education, K to 12, in the district. It needs to provide support for the [gay-straight alliance] clubs, it needs to include examining the purchase of resources, books and videos, bringing in outside presenters, perhaps influencing the professional development for teachers and staff,” Sanyshyn elaborates.

He also hopes that a part-time anti-homophobia consultant position like the Vancouver school board’s will eventually be created to coordinate the action plan.

For her part, Mumford says the new committee would need to “decide what their process is,” which would have to be “in consultation with the education committee.”