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Ontario’s political parties weigh in on teachers, schools and students

Homophobia in the classroom

With the Wed, Oct 10 provincial election looming ever closer, advocacy groups are working to ensure queer education issues are on the minds of voters as they head to the polls.

Queer groups are bitterly opposed to the Progressive Conservative plan to fund faith-based schools, fearing that public money will be used to preach homophobia. But even if Conservative leader John Tory never gets the chance to realize his plan, queer students continue to face safety and education issues in the classroom and in the schoolyard.

Helen Kennedy, the executive director of national queer lobby group Egale Canada, says her organization has conducted a survey of every publicly funded school board in the country including Ontario’s Catholic school boards that she hopes to bring into the election campaign.

“We’re looking at everything from antibullying policies to whether they have just cut and pasted from the human rights code,” she says. “In Peel for example they have clear language around gaybashing and the Toronto District School Board is the province-wide leader.”

Kennedy says that regardless of how good written policies may be implementation is a whole different issue.

“Are there incident reports? Are incidents being tracked? How do we monitor that? We haven’t been able to find anything about implementation,” she says. “Are there higher incidents of bullying in schools that don’t have good policies?”

To remedy that lack of information Kennedy says she is also planning what she calls a Safe Schools Survey, which will “go into the schools and ask the youth.”

Tom Warner, of the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario (CLGRO), says education is a top election issue for his organization as well.

“We want to make it a priority on the part of the government to introduce proactive measures to eliminate homophobia and to create queer-positive environments in all schools,” he says. “That would involve such things as school safety and antiviolence programs that specifically include antihomophobia and antitransphobia initiatives, a requirement for mandatory responses to reported instances of harassment and violence and effective provisions for enforcement and disciplinary action.

“It would require that school equity policies and programs specifically prohibit inequitable treatment of queer students, teachers and staff. It must be mandatory and must include effective measures for monitoring and ensuring compliance.”

A spokeswoman for Liberal education minister Kathleen Wynne says her party doesn’t yet have an election platform on education, but in an interview with Xtra in September 2006, just after she was appointed minister, Wynne said homophobia is a major concern.

“We’re trying to put in place in Ontario the resources that will allow schools to reach every student and allow students to take part in a safe and secure learning environment,” she said. “Every time I talk about bullying in the legislature I raise the issue of homophobia. It’s sort of the last bastion of bullying on the schoolyard.”

Wynne announced on Aug 22 that the Liberal government would spend $10.5 million to hire 170 experts including psychologists, social workers, attendance counsellors and child and youth workers to help students at risk in Ontario schools.

That’s expected to translate into about $1.7 million for Toronto, which could mean about 30 experts for the Toronto public and Catholic schools.

However, since becoming minister, Wynne has not announced any policies to address equity or safety for queer students in schools.

Also on Aug 22 Correctional Services Minister Monte Kwinter announced a $1.7-million pilot project to hire 18 local police officers in Toronto, Hamilton and London to tackle bullying including over the internet among students in Grades 6, 7 and 8.

Tory says the Conservatives have no plans to put more resources into enforcing school boards’ equity policies or the province’s code of conduct.

“This issue of money for enforcement of equity policies has never been raised with me,” he says. “I’m not one of those politicians who’s going to say yes just because you raise it now.”

NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo says the government can’t provide money to school boards for specific purposes.

“We can’t tell school boards what to do,” she says. “If you say, ‘We’ll give money to this little program and not that,’ you starve the system.”

But DiNovo says the NDP will take a close look at enforcement.

“If there are school boards that aren’t providing safe environments, we’ll be pretty hands-on about that,” she says. “That’s a civil rights issue. What we need is enforcement of the human rights code, which we don’t have right now. We need inspectors who can go out for whatever ministry but you don’t want to preempt the board. What the Ministry of Education should be doing is making sure that boards are doing what they say they’re doing.”

Kennedy says Egale is looking at how well teachers are trained to deal with queer issues.

“You don’t have to take sensitivity training to be a teacher, which is crazy,” she says. “There needs to be a clear mandate that sensitivity and LGBT training be a part of their training.”

DiNovo says the NDP will support such a mandate for sensitivity training for teachers.

Tory says the Ontario Human Rights Commission is enough to ensure that queer students are protected from homophobic teachers.

“Where these people are teaching contrary to the human rights code there are avenues of complaint such as the Human Rights Commission,” he says.

Currently schools in Ontario that grant provincial diplomas are required to employ teachers credentialed by the Ontario College of Teachers, but that body makes no specific reference to sexual orientation in its professional standards. Teachers with homophobic beliefs are not disqualified from getting hired, even in public schools.

In addition to sensitivity training, Kennedy says she is also pushing for a government review of school curricula to assess inclusivity for queers. DiNovo says the NDP would support such a review. Tory says he will not.

“I’m a strong proponent of human rights,” says Tory. “How and what you teach has be respectful of human rights. That’s what the curriculum does.”

Tory says he is not familiar with the Toronto Public School Board’s Triangle Program, which provides a safe space for queer students to learn. He says he has no plans to expand the program within Toronto or on a province-wide basis.

“I’ve never heard of it before,” he says.

Wynne told Xtra last September that she thinks the Triangle Program is a great success, but she wouldn’t commit to expanding it. She says individual school boards have to take the responsibility.

“First there has to be the political will to put those programs in place,” says Wynne. “If there were the political will in other parts of the province, I think we could set up those programs.”

DiNovo says the NDP would work on expanding the Triangle Program both within Toronto and across the province. But she says the party’s first worry is that the program will be cut completely by a Liberal or Conservative government.

“It’s the extra programs that tend to be cut,” she says. “Triangle programs are the first to be cut and it’s going to come to that.”

DiNovo says the only way to avoid program cuts is to increase education funding, but she wouldn’t say how much money the NDP would put into education, promising that the party will release dollar figures for its programs after Xtra goes to press.

“Our school system is being starved,” she says. “We’ll fix the funding formula and fully fund the education system.”

Tory says his party promises an additional $800 million in school funding in the first year of his government, rising to $2.4 billion by the fourth year. He says some of that money would be spent at the discretion of school boards, but up to $400 million of it would go to faith-based schools every year.