The Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows school board chamber was a sea of pink on Feb 29 as trustees responded positively to presentations from district teachers and students seeking a stand-alone anti-homophobia policy.
The room was filled to capacity with approximately 50 students from schools in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows, as well as their teachers — all in pink T-shirts — and the walls were plastered with hundreds of anti-homophobia pledges signed by students, staff and administrators.
Deidre Torrence, chairperson of the Maple Ridge Teachers’ Association social justice committee, lauded the board members for showing up in pink but said it would take more than a wardrobe change to combat homophobia.
“The prevention of this form of harassment requires the development of discrete policy language that educates and supports students, families, teachers and other employees about sexual orientation and gender identity,” she said. “Maple Ridge Secondary School was the first school in this province to have a gay-straight alliance, yet District 42 does not have a sexual orientation policy at this point.”
She said the previous board passed a resolution to develop an anti-homophobia policy in June, but nothing has happened yet.
“This was to show them we’d like them to move forward and involve students and teachers in the policy development,” says Torrence, who was struck by the positive response from board members and administrators. “They were moved and it was quite powerful. Hopefully it gets them moving.”
Garibaldi Secondary student Jessica Hildebrand, who came out in Grade 8, says the bullying she thought she escaped in elementary school got at least 10 times worse when she entered secondary school.
“I went to the doctor and got diagnosed with anxiety and depression as a direct result of people’s bullying, which I still deal with to this day, and in my Grade 10 year I did try to end my own life. And sadly a lot of LGBT students do this, and I’m glad I didn’t,” she said between tears.
“There needs to be more rules against bullying of LGBT students and better guidelines about how to deal with the issues that we face every day. The treatment that I experienced was inexcusable and completely preventable,” Hildebrand continued.
Alex, a student at Maple Ridge Secondary, also spoke in favour of the proposed policy. “Through their lessons and their authority, teachers have the ability to propagate certain values and thoughts and promote awareness of the problems confronting humanity to the future members of society. Therefore, when our school ignores or avoids addressing non-heterosexuals in their lessons, their policies and their goals, their students will consequently be socially unconscious to these issues, even going so far as to perpetuate the exclusion and marginalization of this minority.”
The trustees, also clad in pink, all responded supportively and recited a pledge to speak up against hate and intolerance and to provide hope for LGBT and other bullied teens.
“It’s good to see people coming together around something so powerful,” board chair Mike Murray told the meeting. “It makes such a strong statement, not only for the people in this room, but for our community, who may not realize how important this is.”
Murray said he is committed to the policy but wants to ensure that it’s done right.
“We have a board policy committee,” he said. “We’re talking about policies in general, but I would expect this will come back to committee pretty quickly, given the kind of support obviously both our local teachers’ association and our students are identifying.”
Trustee Susan Carr, who sits on the board policy committee, confirmed it will take action but could not give a timeframe. “It’s in our radar to do. It’s on our list,” she said. “We want to do it right, and so the input we got tonight from these kids — including that folder they gave us with policies from other districts — that’s great. It’s really helpful so that we can put something together that is valuable.”
Absent a provincewide instruction, 15 of BC’s 60 school districts have now passed anti-homophobia policies, and a few others are considering it.
Maple Ridge schools superintendent Jan Unwin was among several people moved to tears by the students’ presentations.
“I was so taken by those kids and how passionate they were and how committed they were to getting their position stated,” she says. “That’s what we hope for. That means we’ve done something right in our education world when they have the courage to do what they did. I’m so impressed and so proud of them.”
Trustee Dave Rempel, who has been on the board for 16 years, thinks the educational component of an anti-homophobia policy ought to start in elementary school. “With most things we develop, let’s say drug or alcohol policies, if you work it down to elementary school you address the question earlier and it doesn’t become as big a problem if you move into high school or post-secondary. Education is key to most things. For example, it was through the schools that we taught adults to recycle.”