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Queer student survey hits snags

Canadian school boards reluctant to take part

GOING AHEAD. An initial report from the Egale student survey will be available mid-May, based on data collected to that point. 750 students have replied to the survey so far. Credit: (Xtra.ca file photo)

Egale Canada’s student survey on homophobia is running into problems with Ontario school boards.

The school board in Thunder Bay, which had agreed to participate, has pulled out and the Toronto Catholic District School Board has refused to take part. Across Canada, only the Vancouver school board is taking part in the survey.

“It’s a hindrance but I’m not surprised we have to work hard to get school boards to agree,” says Catherine Taylor, the University of Winnipeg professor in charge of the project. “They’re scared of touching this issue.”

Helen Kennedy, Egale’s executive director, says the problems are proof of the need for such a survey.

“The reality is if Egale is having this much trouble getting the survey into schools, imagine how tough it is for kids coming out,” she says.

The Egale survey, which was launched in December, is aimed at students in Grade 8 and up. It 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.

School boards are asked to have students fill out the survey as part of class exercises. The survey, also available online, is anonymous, whether done in school or not.

Rowan Seymour, the education officer with Thunder Bay’s Lakehead Public School Board, says the school board was being asked to do too much work.

“We just had logistical issues,” he says. “They’re in Winnipeg and they didn’t have someone on the ground here.”

Seymour also says Egale turned down a chance to work with the Thunder Bay District Health Unit on the survey.

“We had tried to match their survey with one going on here by public health,” he says. “They chose not to participate for whatever reason.”

But Taylor says Seymour is wrong on both counts.

“We did have someone on the ground and she was prepared to handle the distribution, the consent letters and all of that,” she says.

Taylor says Egale did initially turn down the offer from the District Health Unit because she didn’t want Egale’s survey to be part of a survey on sexual issues. But she says she had reached an agreement with the Health Unit, which was then rescinded after health officials talked to the school board.

“This is an example of what communication is not all about,” she says.

Taylor says the Thunder Bay school board also expressed misgivings about the survey advising gay students under 18 that they don’t have to seek parental consent to fill it out if they’re not out.

“It’s ethically wrong for us to expose queer kids to that potential abuse,” she says. “The university approved that protocol because the survey doesn’t go into illegal activities or expose a child to something that would cause distress.”

Taylor says she will try to work out an agreement with the Thunder Bay board. She says not having school boards involved makes it harder to garner random samples because it minimizes the number of straight students involved.

“With the schools you get the whole population, not just those who are strongly motivated,” she says. “That’s why we dearly want to get another couple of boards.”

Taylor says about 750 students have replied to the survey so far. About 200 replies were from Ontario and 291 from BC, including 190 from in-class replies. Taylor says that so far Alberta and the Maritimes are underrepresented. A Quebec survey will be available once francophone researchers are recruited.

Taylor says that an initial report and analysis will be available in mid-May, based on data collected to that point.

Taylor says she’s already noticed the similarities in replies from across the country.

“I’m struck by how the same patterns are showing up from all areas of the country, in big cities and small towns, in every province,” she says. “It’s the same old song. Kids hearing names for their identity being used as synonyms for stupid 20 times a day, feeling it’s not safe for them to come out.”

Taylor says the results also have good news.

“There’s more and more students also saying they belong to gay-straight alliances, that they have cool teachers,” she says.

Taylor hopes the survey data will provide concrete arguments for specific programs and educational approaches.

“The frustrating part is we pretty much know what needs to be done,” she says.

Kennedy says Egale’s Safe Schools Program, which includes the survey, will receive a boost from Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors tour this summer in Vancouver and Toronto. A dollar from each ticket will go to Egale’s program.