Queer lobby group Egale Canada has launched a national student survey to look at homophobia in Canadian schools.
The Egale survey, aimed at students in Grade 8 and up, asks questions not only about sexual orientation and gender identity but about language at school, bullying, the curriculum and teacher and staff support. Straight students are asked about their openness to queer students.
“Homophobia and transphobia are very major problems in schools but we don’t see any real action,” said Egale executive director Helen Kennedy at the survey launch on Dec 10. “Our children are being bullied in the hallways, our children are being bullied in the playground, our children are being bullied on the internet.”
Only three school boards in Canada have agreed to work with Egale on the survey: Thunder Bay, Ontario; one in Nova Scotia and in Victoria, BC. In those schools, the survey will be addressed in some classes. Participation is completely voluntary and results will go directly and anonymously to Egale. Students in other school districts across the country can fill out the survey online.
The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has also released the results of its student survey showing that eight percent of students identify as gay or lesbian, bisexual, not sure or questioning or as other — which includes trans, queer and two-spirited.
Kennedy says that the TDSB survey, although theoretically anonymous, was compromised by requiring students to sign their student numbers to it.
“The whole issue of having a completely anonymous survey is huge,” she says.
Steven Solomon, a social worker with the TDSB’s human sexuality program, agrees that the school board’s survey is probably not accurate. He says the survey — which was only offered to high school students — should have included those in Grade 8.
“I believe those numbers are underrepresented,” he says, “and they don’t capture the kids who might be in the process of coming out.”
Solomon says the TDSB survey probably also underrepresents abuse in schools. He says the survey should have more directly addressed issues of homophobic language, even when not directed at a specific student.
“Kids only tend to identify it when it comes to physical abuse,” he says. “If you ask them how often they hear putdowns around sexual orientation that would be a much higher number.”
In the TDSB survey three percent of those who said they had been bullied, threatened or harmed attributed it to a perception of their sexual orientation.
Jen Blaser, a student in the Toronto school board’s Triangle program for queer students, was part of the Egale survey launch. She says she hopes the results will force schools to address problems of homophobia.
“I really hope educators come to the conclusion this is a problem,” says Blaser. “I hope when they see the numbers they’ll do something but I don’t have much faith.”
Speaking at the launch, Blaser said she was forced to leave her school in rural Ontario to find a more open environment in Toronto.
“Within my high school I was subjected to daily abuse,” she said. “I received death threats daily. I was subjected to several assaults.”
Kennedy told the launch that she met with Ontario’s minister of education Kathleen Wynne about the survey.
“It would be nice to have the minister step forward and say we want the survey taken on by every school board,” said Kennedy. “This work is the responsibility of the ministry of education.”
But while Wynne says the information gathered will be useful she says school boards make their own decisions.
“Boards decide locally what their approach will be,” she says, “but having said that, any information we can get about how kids are feeling about their school is what we need. Just shining a light on some of these issues raises awareness.”
Rowan Seymour, the education officer with Thunder Bay’s Lakehead Public School Board, says the board agreed to participate partially because of the survey’s academic pedigree.
The survey was conceived by Catherine Taylor, a professor at the University of Winnipeg, and is monitored by the university.
“We perceive this as being a very valid voice for our students,” says Seymour. “We are committed to having a safe and welcoming environment.”