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Human rights code link to safe schools unclear

What about perceived sexual orientation, gender identity?: activists

An education ministry order to tie school board codes of conduct to the BC Human Rights code is a “great first step,” says Steve Mulligan, an anti-homophobia and diversity consultant with the Vancouver School Board (VSB). However, queer education activists feel the measure falls short of completely protecting queer youth.

The ministerial order states school boards must ensure their codes of conduct include, “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 the provincial human rights code only names sexual orientation not perceived sexual orientation nor gender identity as prohibited grounds for discrimination.

“Any student can be a victim,” of homophobia, VSB Pride Committee member Jane Bouey points out.

Queer education activists were left seething when the province passed what they felt was watered-down safe schools legislation May 15. A safe schools bill, as initially proposed by gay MLA Lorne Mayencourt, prohibited harassment on the basis of real and perceived sexual orientation, along with gender identity. The bill was adopted by the Liberal government but, as revised and passed, did not refer to either sexual orientation nor gender identity.

At the time, the opposition NDP proposed two amendments to it, the first explicitly protecting students from homophobic bullying. It was defeated with all Liberals, including Mayencourt, voting against it.

The second amendment proposed tying codes of conduct to the BC Human Rights Code. Mayencourt was the sole Liberal to vote in favour of it. Up to press time, Mayencourt did not return calls for comment on the latest developments.

After the education ministry officials met with BC’s Gay and Lesbian Educators in July, it was unclear whether or not codes of conduct would be tied to the provincial human rights code. Education minister Shirley Bond told Xtra West in August that more discussion was needed.

“The next battle is to go the way of Nunavut and mention gender identity in the human rights code,” says Glen Hansman, an anti-homophobia consultant and president of the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers’ Association.

In May 2006, BC human rights tribunal chair Heather MacNaughton told Xtra West that gender identity can and has been considered a subset of sex discrimination as far as the tribunal is concerned.

“Having it spelled out helps with some boards,” Bouey maintains.

Bond, who was in Prince George and unavailable for a phone interview, corresponded with Xtra West by email. She did not address the issues of perceived sexual orientation or gender identity in response to questions posed, but ministry spokesperson Lara Perzoff says it will be up to school boards to create their codes “as they see fit.”

“I would imagine they would carefully put them together so they cover the needs of the community,” she offers.

Another potential problem is the wording of the ministerial order, effective Oct 17.

Education activists wonder whether or not schools will have to name each of the BC Human Rights Code grounds of discrimination in their individual codes of conduct, or simply refer to them.

“I would think they need to spell it out,” Mulligan contends.

Bouey agrees.

“My reading is they have to specify [grounds of discrimination], but it isn’t made clear.”

Hansman says while the human rights code applies to schools regardless, “cross-referencing” it is important for “the [school boards] that have been reluctant” to protect queer students through codes of conduct up until now.

In an email to Xtra West, Bond states, “Boards of education are expected to consider the BC Human Rights Code” when developing their codes of conduct.

Though the ministry sets the standards for codes of conduct, “it is the responsibility of boards of education to develop their own codes of conduct and to determine how they are applied at the school level,” says Bond.

Education boards will rely on a facilitators’ guide, dated August 2007, to help ensure their codes of conduct meet the province’s requirements, along with The Safe Caring and Orderly Schools: A Guide published in 2004.

Meanwhile, there are more specific instructions in the ministerial order that please queer education activists. For instance, barring “discriminatory publication” in the school environment means harassment in the form of graffiti and bullying off of school property will also be prohibited, a real plus, says Mulligan.

He is also pleased the ministerial order requires boards to ensure schools distribute codes of conduct at the start of the school year to students, parents and board employees, and to students who start attending a school during the school year.

Both the facilitators’ guide and ministerial order state that school boards must make sure their member schools review codes of conduct annually, at a minimum, to ensure codes are current. The education minister can request codes of conduct at any time “in order to determine compliance,” says Bond. The facilitators’ guide also notes “codes may need to be adapted with respect to expectations for use of cell phones, web postings or other emerging technologies.”

The ministry says all school boards now have codes of conduct in place and there is no deadline set for them to follow the ministerial order. All schools must complete a checklist as part of their accountability contract twice a year. Part of this checklist now includes having codes of conduct that comply with the new ministerial order.

School boards in Vancouver, Victoria, Southeast Kootenay, the Gulf Islands and North Vancouver have already created anti-homophobia policies on their own-before the safe schools bill was passed. And both Prince George and New Westminster boards have policies in the works.

Even as Bouey hopes some boards will add gender identity and perceived orientation to their codes of conduct to keep them current, she worries not all BC school boards will have the funds to implement and enforce codes of conduct. She’s also concerned that smaller districts may not have the community-based resources, such as volunteer-run LGBT centres, to help school boards out.

“Targeted funding to go with [the ministerial order] is needed,” says Bouey. “The province has a responsibility, a duty to provide the resources necessary to ensure it’s done.”

All in all, Bouey feels the latest development in developing school codes “puts this province on a pretty good standing.”

“Now it’s a question of monitoring,” she concludes.