Manitoba’s minister of education says a new provincial code of conduct is being developed that sets out disciplinary consequences all schools will be required to follow to address homophobia and bullying in a clear and consistent way.
It's a development that's left BC gay education advocates asking why the Prairie province has leapfrogged ahead on something they've been requesting here for years.
"What this means for gay students is when they are bullied, there will be very clear consequences," Manitoba Education Minister Nancy Allan tells Xtra. "Everybody in the school will know what the consequences are.
"We are continuing to take steps to ensure there are appropriate consequences for bullying and that teachers and principals have the support they need," she says.
Allan says the code will present a broad range of consequences, starting with an interview and dialogue with the student. That could lead to detention or suspension.
"If it's a serious matter, it could be referred to law enforcement officials," she says. "We know that students can't learn when they feel marginalized, humiliated or intimidated. We want all of our students to feel safe. And we want bullies to know there are real consequences for their actions."
The code builds on Bill 18, The Public Schools Amendment Act (Safe and Inclusive Schools) introduced in early 2013 and expected to pass into law later this year.
The bill would amend the province's Schools Act to include definitions of bullying, appropriate use of social media and a requirement for each school board to establish a respect for human diversity policy.
"The policy is to promote the acceptance of and respect for others in a safe, caring and inclusive school environment," the bill's explanatory note says. "The policy must accommodate student activity that promotes the school environment as being inclusive of all pupils, including student activities and organizations that use the name 'gay-straight alliance.'"
The proposed language is specific in saying, "respect from human diversity policy must accommodate pupils who want to establish and lead activities and organizations that promote gender equity, antiracism, the awareness and understanding of, and respect for, people who are disabled by barriers, or the awareness and understanding of, and respect for, people of all sexual orientations and gender identities; and use the name "gay-straight alliance" or any other name that is consistent with the promotion of a positive school environment that is inclusive and accepting of all pupils."
Allan says she wants the code in place sometime in the next school year. She says the code would provide guidance to principals and teachers on how to respond to inappropriate conduct, including bullying or cyberbullying, both in and outside of school hours.
Among other things, the code confirms principals' disciplinary authority over pupils in terms of their conduct toward one another on their way to and from school and on school buses; confirms the principals' disciplinary authority to address unacceptable student conduct, including bullying, cyberbullying and abuse of a student by another; defines a school’s discipline and behaviour management policies, including consequences for unacceptable conduct as are set out in the code of conduct; and confirms that interventions and disciplinary consequences must be appropriate given the severity of the conduct and must take into account the pupil's state of development.
Further, the code notes the discipline and behaviour management policies that schools will set out in protocols for notifying parents when their children become the subjects of disciplinary action. It confirms the suspension powers of teachers, principals and superintendents and the reporting of such suspensions and the limitations on suspension authority. Finally, it will confirm the appeal process available to parents whose children have been suspended and the authority of the school board to confirm or modify suspensions or reinstate pupils.
Allan also announced passage of a new regulation that will require all schools to follow the new provincial code of conduct in the coming year.
Paul Olson, president of the Manitoba Teachers' Society, welcomes the announcement.
“Teachers are always working for better learning in safer schools," he says. "This code could be an important step toward having both useful guidelines and a clear message of support for the work Manitoba teachers do every day."
In BC, individual school districts have been introducing stand-alone policies, but there is still no provincial policy to address homophobic bullying.
Premier Christy Clark in June 2012 introduced the ERASE (Expect Respect and a Safe Education) Bullying strategy, which promised to ensure every child feels safe, accepted and respected, regardless of gender, race, culture, religion or sexual orientation. However, it was a long way from her BC Liberal leadership campaign pledge to Xtra on Jan 8, 2011, that one of her first actions would be to direct her education minister to deal with homophobic bullying as a top priority.
In November 2012, then-education minister Don McRae said codes of conduct would be strengthened but, when questioned, said sexual orientation would not be specifically addressed.
Student Ryan Clayton was behind 2011's Purple Letter Campaign, which saw hundreds of letters from the queer community delivered to the BC government.
Clayton says BC's ERASE campaign was a good start.
"We're falling behind," he says. "We're no longer leading the charge."
He says the Manitoba move means BC is falling further behind other provinces such as Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland and Alberta. He's impressed with Manitoba's code proposal. The proposals give clear processes on how to deal with bullying and give teachers the tools they need to handle situations.
"It basically reads like a grocery list of everything I wanted to see in BC," Clayton says. "The homophobic aspect of it was really clear. They didn't shy away from it."
BC Teachers' Federation (BCTF) second vice-president Glen Hansman says it's 10 years since the Vancouver School Board specifically added homophobic bullying to its code. Since then, two dozen districts throughout BC have followed suit. But nothing has happened at the provincial level.
"There isn't the political will," Hansman says. "If we continue talking just about bullying, we aren't doing the students any good."
In addition to its proposed code, Manitoba's ministry is partnering with the Egale Canada Human Rights Trust to develop resource kits for teachers and schools to assist with the creation of gay-straight alliances.
Allan notes the code is being developed in partnership with a provincial oversight committee that comprises teachers, superintendents, parents, trustees and school business officials from public and funded independent schools in consultation with the province's advisory committee on safe schools.
Hansman says a similar pool of knowledge, including the Pride Education Network, Gab Youth and other youth programs, exists in BC for the government to draw on if it wishes.
"It's just a matter of the province doing it," he says.
Allan cautions that Manitoba's bill itself is mired at second reading in the legislature, where the committee stage is clogged with 280 presenters wanting to speak to the bill. Of those, she says, 200 are from the community of Steinbach.
Steinbach's Southland Church is opposed to the bill, saying it infringes on freedom of religion and protects some groups over others. Pastor Ray Duerksen preached Feb 24 to about 3,500 people that if Steinbach's Christian High School is forced to allow a gay-straight alliance, "that is an attack on our religious freedom."
"If it passes, we're going to lose our religious freedom," he said. "It's going to be the beginning of an incremental attempt to destroy the Christian church . . . that's the agenda behind the scene."
He said the church and the community are in “mortal danger.”