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No promises on new school codes

Education minister noncommittal on sexual orientation

Months after passage of safe schools legislation, gay education activists are pessimistic that sexual orientation and gender identity will be included as protected categories in codes of conduct now required by law.

“The Ministry of Education made no commitments to protect queer and questioning youth in schools,” says James Chamberlain of BC’s Gay and Lesbian Educators (GALE), referring to a Jul 10 meeting with ministry officials.

“They would not state their intentions or any timelines for change,” he claims.

The meeting took place two months after the BC Liberals passed Bill 22 establishing mandatory codes of conduct for schools across BC. The Liberals left the specifics of the new codes to provincial standards to be set this summer, after rejecting two amendments that would have added sexual orientation to the bill.

Gay MLA Lorne Mayencourt said the standards would address sexual orientation and other grounds protected by the human rights code. Though he attended the July meeting, Mayencourt is travelling now and could not be reached for comment.

Anti-homophobia consultant Glen Hansman, who was also at the meeting, corroborates Chamberlain’s statement, saying the ministry’s lead representative “refused to make any promises.”

Hansman says he finds the government’s reluctance to include sexual orientation in the codes “completely ridiculous and perplexing.”

“We’ve not had any reluctance about looking at how we express concern that schools are safe places for the diverse number of students that we have,” counters education minister Shirley Bond. “We haven’t come to a final decision yet about what the form of the actual code of conduct will look like. We’ve had significant consultation and we’re still working on how in fact we will have that expressed in the standards,” Bond continues, reiterating “there’s no reluctance at all to respect diversity.”

Asked if it is her government’s intention to refer to the human rights code that already lists sexual orientation as a protected category, Bond refuses to be pinned down.

“I didn’t say that. What I said is the discussion is taking place as to how we might best capture the need for school districts to respect the diversity of students in British Columbia. It may include a reference to the human rights code,” she says.

Bond maintains one of her biggest concerns is the “inconsistent practice” across school districts with regard to codes of conduct. Discussions will continue over the next several weeks, she says.

Hansman predicts the new standards will only be “an upgrade” of existing school policies that don’t explicitly prohibit harassment on the basis of sexual orientation.

He is also concerned that the codes’ development is “behind schedule.”

When asked about the timeframe for implementation, Bond says there isn’t a date “wherein which we will say, ‘Here’s the code of conduct, this is how it works.’

“Of course, we’re on schedule,” she asserts, noting that legislation was “only passed in May” with consultation going on throughout the summer.

“Our job is to provide to school districts provincial standards around which they will create their codes of conduct,” she says, adding it will take districts “some time to work through that.”

The codes have to include gender identity and sexual orientation, maintains GALE’s Steve LeBel. “If we only leave it up to districts to do it if they’re so interested, then the places where the problem is the worst are the ones where there is going to be the least action,” he predicts.