Toronto
2 min

Handling ‘Fags should die’

Trustees ask how to make schools safer

NASTY GRAFFITI. Trustee Rick Telfer says homophobia and racism need to be addressed when kids are young. Credit: Xtra files

A task force on making Toronto schools safe and compassionate is looking for ways to do better than former premier Mike Harris’ Safe Schools Act.



With consultations planned across the city through April – and a report scheduled for May – the openly gay Toronto District School Board (TDSB) trustee leading the task force says educators can do more to help queer students.



“Call somebody a fag and they lash out in response,” says Chris Bolton, who is co-chairing the task force with fellow trustee Zanana Akand. “Who is it that gets called on? It’s usually the person who lashes out. Schools are strapped for guidance counsellors, youth counsellors and education assistants. Vice-principals used to be able to help ameliorate the situation. The schools no longer seem able to take the time to do full investigations. There may be two victims, the victim of the fight and the underlying situation that isn’t addressed.”



Last November’s municipal elections brought to the board a group of trustees who take the issue seriously. They don’t think the 2000 Safe Schools Act, which adopted a strict code of conduct for students and staff, was very effective.



“I think the vast majority, if not all trustees, are supportive of the initiative because they understand the safe schools legislation didn’t make schools safer,” says Rick Telfer, openly gay trustee for Toronto-Danforth. “It further marginalized many kids. Parents of students from visible minority backgrounds are very concerned about how the safe schools policy affects their kids.”



Telfer says gay and lesbian students face particular challenges.



“When you’re a student who’s part of a sexual minority, you’re not born into a community that has support built into it, you’re all by yourself,” says Telfer. “Our interest is in dealing with the pattern of differential treatment, violence and prejudice that students who are part of sexual minorities face…. Having Chris Bolton involved bodes well for the gay and lesbian community and the kinds of challenges that our community faces at any age.”



Telfer, who works full time for the Canadian Federation Of Students, says homophobia is alive and well at all levels of the education system.



“It’s alarming to me when I visit secondary schools – I don’t think it’s any secret – men’s washrooms have graffiti which often has very homophobic and startlingly violent messages like ‘Fags should die,’ which creates a climate that’s often overlooked and bleeds later in people’s lives,” he says. Telfer cites a recent article in The Varsity student newspaper mentioning a piece of graffiti found on University Of Toronto Mississauga campus. It read, “Too many homos and not enough bullets for my nine-millimetre.”



“Homophobia and prejudice, the kernels of hate exist in the very early stages of education and we need to be doing equity and anti-homophobia and anti-racist work in the early years,” says Telfer.



Bolton says many people have concerns about how safe schools policies are implemented, especially when staff focus on zero tolerance.



“Very young students are being suspended for saying things inappropriate like, ‘I’ll kill you,’ which is now considered a threat. But we need to look at the age factor and whether they understand the implications of what they’ve said.”



There are also budget issues. The TDSB’s equity department, never large, has been cut down to only two people, serving 578 schools.



“Parents and students don’t even know these supports exist,” says Bolton. “The other aspect of this is that the fate of these two workers is unclear after June because their jobs may become a victim of budgeting.”



* The Safe And Compassionate Schools Task Force consultations run from 7pm to 9pm at various locations on Tue, Apr 6, 7, 14 and 15. Written submissions can be sent to sact@tdsb.on.ca. There’s more information at Tdsb.on.ca or contact Chris Bolton at (416) 705-6370 or board chair Sheila Ward at (416) 397-2571.