The Toronto District School Board will be asking high school students to fill out a survey this November that will include a question about sexual orientation.
The voluntary, confidential survey will ask, “How do you identify your sexual orientation: heterosexual (straight), lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, two-spirited, not sure.”
Lloyd McKell, the board’s executive officer of student and community equity, says the survey, intended to find out how students from various backgrounds are getting along, will also include questions about each respondent’s gender, race, ethnic origin and languages, among many others.
“For every demographic, students, whether they be female or speak Albanian or are East Asian, will be asked how they feel about their learning experience, how they relate to teachers, to advice they get from teachers and parents.”
McKell says the board will use the survey results to try to find out which groups are having trouble in school, academically and otherwise, and address the reasons why. He says previous studies have shown that students from African-Canadian, Spanish-language and lower-income backgrounds, and newcomers are less successful academically.
McKell says the survey will ask respondents for their student ID numbers, which can then be used to compare their academic results with their survey responses.
“That question [about sexual orientation] can be correlated with other questions about their experience with the school environment. We want to use the data to develop strategies to help the least successful close the gap.”
The survey was conceived in response to accusations that schools were much quicker to expel black students than white under the province’s Safe Schools Act. McKell says that when the survey was originally designed in 2004, sexual orientation was not included. But he says that after consultations with outside experts and focus groups, it was decided to add the question.
Groups working with queer youth are cautiously optimistic about the survey.
“It seems that it is being promoted as way of creating visibility where there is invisibility,” says Janis Purdy, the director of community development with Central Toronto Youth Services’ Pride And Prejudice Program. “I don’t think this is going to be harmful. You can’t do less than nothing, and right now the school board is doing virtually nothing.”
Ayden Scheim of Supporting Our Youth agrees that the survey might be helpful.
“If they’re going to use those surveys to look at the ways in which students are interacting with each other and the school system, that would be good. One thing is safety. The majority of students are not reflected in the curriculum, not just the queer students.”
But both Purdy and Scheim say they worry about the survey being used just as a means of measuring numbers. They say that queer youth are often reluctant to answer questions about their sexuality, even confidential ones, and the numbers of queer students could be underreported.
McKell acknowledges that students might not answer the question, but says the board will be sending out literature to students and parents promoting the survey and its confidential nature.
The board has received some objections on religious grounds, but McKell says students are free to skip any questions they object to. He adds that students might be more willing to discuss these issues than their parents.
“Often they’re quite matter-of-fact about it.”