6 min

It’s about school safety

MLA Jenny Kwan questions education minister Tom Christensen

DIDN'T WANT TO DICATE. BC education minister Tom Christensen says each school community can develop its own standards to combat schoolyard bullying. He's opposed to requiring that schools address homophobia directly. Credit: Xtra West files

Jenny Kwan: Protecting students from discrimination and maintaining safe environments is, of course, critical to our learning environment. I don’t think we’re in disagreement about that. However, we still hear too many stories of young gay, lesbian or other queer-identified teens being discriminated against or experiencing violence in our schools. Events like the 2001 beating and death of Aaron Webster in Stanley Park tragically highlight the homophobia and gaybashing that are all too frequent, in my view, in British Columbia. In addition, a 1999 McCreary Centre Society study showed that 37 percent of gay and lesbian youth in BC felt like outsiders at school. These are major issues. I would have expected and hoped, actually, that this review, this report, would address this issue directly and for the province to take on that kind of leadership role. Here’s the problem: Following the safe schools task force, the government had an opportunity to actually take concrete action to deal with homophobia in our schools. Instead, the guide released last month called Safe, Caring and Orderly Schools has been seen as a major letdown to concerned members of the gay and lesbian community particularly.

In fact, let me just put on record parts of a newspaper article from Xtra! West. Here’s what parts of it say: “Gay education activists’ last hope for a province-wide plan to address homophobia fizzled last week when the government finally released safe schools guidelines.

“‘It’s a pretty appalling document,’ says a frustrated James Chamberlain. ‘It’s vague, toothless and offers few new resources. And it does nothing to ensure that schools address homophobia,’ he adds.

“Though the task force shied away from any recommendations dealing directly with homophobia, some activists held onto the hope that the government might take the lead and tackle the issue itself.”

(Editor’s note: Kwan continues reading from the news report before continuing as below.)

In that context and, of course, in the big fanfare that particularly the member for Vancouver-Burrard went out to do this work as the chair [of the Safe Schools Task Force], to say that this report is a letdown, to say that the report actually didn’t provide the leadership that I think many people in the community were hoping for…. Particularly in the area around homophobia, the opportunity was missed.

I’d like to ask the minister the question: Are there any plans? Well, no, I shouldn’t say that, because obviously the plans have been dashed, because the report is now out. Would the minister agree that to deal with issues around homophobia, to deal with all sorts of discrimination, the government needs to take a leadership role in addressing that and pushing forward and setting out the guidelines around what is acceptable and what is not acceptable? In the instance around homophobia, why didn’t the government go further than what was tabled?

Hon Tom Christensen: I appreciate the comments of the member, and I recognize the frustration that may be there from the gay and lesbian community, some of whose members would have liked to see, I guess, a very specific and detailed code of conduct that the provincial government would impose on school districts.

Let’s be clear-and the member and I certainly don’t disagree at all on this: Discrimination within our schools on any grounds is wholly unacceptable. That certainly includes any elements of homophobia. Those are unacceptable behaviours within our schools.

What we have done, rather than trying to dictate from Victoria very specific standards of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, is said that it’s critically important that those be elements of codes of conduct. That’s why determining acceptable and unacceptable behaviours within schools, regardless of the motivation for the behaviour, is an important element of developing a code of conduct.

I certainly believe that part of the value of the approach we’ve taken, in terms of requiring schools to develop codes of conduct and the province setting standards we’re requiring to be reflected in those codes of conduct, is that the school community is involved in the development of the code of conduct and that issues like homophobia, like discrimination on a range of grounds, like bullying-and what, in fact, constitutes bullying-can all be discussed by the school community in the context of developing their code of conduct. It is that discussion that is important to having a code of conduct that is actually then going to work.

We can develop some pretty prescriptive codes here in Victoria and send them out around the province, and we can use a number of methods at our disposal to try and ensure that those codes are being adhered to. I don’t think that would be a terribly successful approach. I think if schools are given a set of standards, a set of expectations, a requirement to develop a code of conduct within the school that reflects those standards so that schools then have that conversation, the exercise in and of itself is going to go a long way to addressing the goal of having safe, caring schools that are inclusive of all students that go there.

I think we’ve taken the right approach to doing this. I recognize, certainly, that the member and others may disagree with that approach. I can tell the member that the response the ministry and I have received to this initiative has been very, very positive, that the way we have moved forward with this has been done in strong consultation with our education partners-those who work in the education system on a day-to-day basis-and that I’m very proud of the work that’s been done both by the ministry and by the MLA task force in this regard. I expect that this is work that will prove to have considerable value in the months and years ahead as schools go through the exercise of developing these codes of conduct.

J Kwan: Here’s the problem: There needs to be leadership from the province and, I think, from this minister. Clear direction is needed to protect students, and I just want to highlight another comment on this issue.

The Victoria school board brought in their new policy in June 2003 that has very clear language around discrimination and homophobia. I believe the minister knows what those were. A couple of highlighted points include supporting social justice clubs and gay-straight alliances, as well as the development of codes of conduct to forbid discrimination on the basis of gender, identity or sexual orientation.

After the policy was announced, an organization called Focus on the Family (Canada) criticized the district. Derek Rogusky with Focus on the Family said: “Certainly schools should be safe places for all children, but we need to ensure that educators are not promoting certain lifestyles and values under the guise of tolerance.” I bring this forward only because it highlights some of the views out there that are working against developing anti-discrimination and anti-homophobic policies. It highlights the fact that leadership at the provincial level is actually required if the ministry is unwilling to provide clear direction to the boards.

It isn’t about dictating to the boards what they should or should not do. We’re talking about safety for students and the safe environment, and then setting out those standards is important. The board needs to understand that these standards are expected to be adhered to. After all, these are our basic human rights. That’s what they are, and that’s how they should be treated and put forward, in that sense, with leadership from the government.

If the minister and the government are unwilling to provide clear direction to the boards, then how can one contemplate or understand or explain to the gay and lesbian community or students outside of Victoria and Vancouver school districts that they can access safe environments within their schools? Without those kinds of guidelines that are explicit, how can we make those students feel safe when already there is so much hidden fear, really, amongst the gay and lesbian community?

I think it is most unfortunate that the government missed this opportunity. We should have done the right thing-that is to say, these are human rights and they’re worth our while for protection, so therefore, the province is going to put them forward as guidelines that must be adopted by school boards, and then for us to work with school boards to see how they can translate those guidelines into everyday experiences for the students on the ground.

It’s unfortunate. I mean, the question is raised in the community: how much longer must we wait to get those kinds of clear human rights values enshrined into our school system? I hope the answer…. Well, there was no answer from this report, most unfortunately.

I’d like to ask the minister three last questions, and then I will wrap up my questions for the minister around this.

The budget. The announcement actually didn’t provide any moneys associated with the report. Was there any funding associated with it?

Hon T Christensen: There’s no specific funding associated with it.

J Kwan: For the previous years-and I can appreciate if the minister doesn’t have this information-the ’01-02, ’02-03, ’03-04, ’04-05 budgets, what was allocated from the ministry of education towards safety issues? If the minister doesn’t have this information right now, I could receive that in writing at a later time.

*Excerpted from the official BC Hansard record for Apr 19, a meeting discussing education estimates of the BC Ministry of Education.