Vancouver-Burrard’s gay MLA Lorne Mayencourt finally introduced his long-awaited Safe Schools bill on Apr 24. With only three weeks to go until the legislature breaks for summer on May 18, Mayencourt is positive his bill can pass in time for the new school year come September.
“I think I might be good for one more,” says Mayencourt, referring to the Safe Streets Act, the Trespass Act and the Apology Act, all of which he introduced as private member’s bills, all of which were adopted and passed by the government.
If passed, his new Safe Schools bill will require school boards to establish mandatory, district-wide codes of conduct prohibiting discrimination, intentional or not, based on a number of grounds, including actual and perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.
According to the bill, each code “shall include a provision prohibiting bullying, harassment, intimidation and or discrimination on the basis of a student’s race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, political belief, religion, marital status, family status, social status, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or age of that student or that group or class of students, or their parents.
“Nothing in this section requires the affected student or that group or class of students or their parents to actually possess a characteristic that is a basis for the bullying, harassment, intimidation and or discrimination,” it adds.
The bill defines bullying, harassment, intimidation and discrimination as any written, verbal, or physical act that physically or emotionally harms a student or damages a student’s property, substantially interferes with a student’s education, or is “so severe, persistent, or pervasive that it creates an intimidating or threatening educational environment.”
Any student who feels they have been discriminated against contrary to the codes required by this bill, and without adequate redress from their school board, could file a complaint with BC’s Human Rights Tribunal, the bill provides.
Mayencourt introduced the first incarnation of his Safe Schools bill in February 2005, just three months before the legislature adjourned for last year’s provincial election. The bill died on the order paper. Gay education activists criticized it for seemingly failing to make its proposed codes mandatory, and for focusing too narrowly on harassment rather than attempting to make school culture in BC gay-friendlier overall.
This time, queer education activists say they like what they see.
“It’s very well researched and written. Maybe the government will be willing to take it on,” says Jane Bouey, a member of the Vancouver School Board’s queer advisory committee and a former school trustee in the district.
“It’s not 100 percent but it’s damn close. I like the scope of what’s covered,” says Steve LeBel of Gay and Lesbian Educators of BC (GALE).
LeBel is particularly glad the bill makes anti-discrimination policy mandatory, and that it specifically protects students on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
However, LeBel notes that gender identity is not yet protected in the BC Human Rights Code, potentially making a complaint to the tribunal based on gender identity grounds problematic.
The tribunal has allowed complaints about gender identity discrimination in the past under the category of sex discrimination, Mayencourt points out. Still, he hopes his bill will encourage groups such as the Human Rights Coalition to lobby the province’s attorney general to change BC’s Human Rights Code to include gender identity.
Another concern, say LeBel and Bouey, is budgeting for implementing and enforcing the Safe Schools bill. Because it is a private member’s bill, it cannot allocate government money.
Mayencourt doesn’t seem too concerned. While drafting last year’s Safe Schools bill, he says he prepared accompanying policy to cover the cost of enforcing the bill in case it got passed.
Mayencourt was originally expected to reintroduce his Safe Schools bill last September, but that was delayed until February to allow the fall legislative session to deal with other business. Then it was postponed until mid-March. Then, just one day before he was to reintroduce the Safe Schools bill on Mar 29, the government adopted Mayencourt’s Apology bill instead.
At the time, the MLA told Xtra West he decided to delay the Safe Schools bill’s introduction until April to ensure it got the attention it deserved.
Bouey estimates if the Safe Schools bill is not passed before summer, the “best-case scenario” is it will be passed in November.
“The school community won’t be around to study this” during the summer, notes Bouey. She adds that trying to enforce it after the school year has started could be problematic.
Another roadblock could be expected changes to how school boards are structured. The education ministry has been toying with the idea of “repurposing” school boards, but has given no hint as to how this may happen or what it might involve.
Mayencourt says he has communicated with education minister Shirley Bond throughout his bill’s process and is certain his bill will be effective no matter what.
“I don’t think the urgency is around any potential changes to school boards. The urgency is because of kids,” he says. “I don’t want to see another kid like Hamed Nastoh. I don’t want to see another kid jump off a bridge because someone called him a fag.”
At press time, the date the bill will begin second reading was unknown. During second reading, the legislature will debate the general principles and goals of the bill, then vote on whether it should continue.
If enough MLAs think it should continue, a motion to refer the bill to the Committee of the Whole House for detailed review will be introduced. The committee may propose amendments before voting to send the bill back to the legislature for its third and final reading.
“If I can get it to the committee stage, I’m confident I can pass it,” Mayencourt says.
Mayencourt encourages education activists and members of the queer community who support the bill to make it known that the bill is urgent and needs to be enacted before the summer break. In the meantime, he insists he is putting “gentle pressure” on the government to ensure his bill passes.
Asked how he will ensure the bill stays alive and in people’s minds if it doesn’t pass before summer, Mayencourt says, “I’m going to make sure by not even contemplating it.”
Without any government direction, only two of BC’s 60 school boards have enacted comprehensive anti-homophobia policies. Two more school districts, Vernon and Quesnel, mention sexual orientation in their general non-discrimination policies.