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Queer students bullied, says survey

We know that already, says Ontario MPP

PLAYING THE NUMBERS. Helen Kennedy says the results of a survey on homophobic bullying are no surprise. Credit: (Jenna Wakani)

Initial results from a national survey on homophobic bullying in Canadian schools paint a grim picture. But the Ontario ministry of education says more numbers are not what’s needed.

“The statistics are alarming,” says Helen Kennedy, the executive director of Egale Canada, which is conducting the survey. “We’re depriving our kids of a future. It never ceases to amaze me. Two-thirds of the participants say they feel unsafe at school.”

The results, based on a survey of Canadian youth begun in December, were released on May 12. Students will still be able to access the survey online over the summer, and phase two of the survey will begin in September.

But Liz Sandals, the Guelph MPP who heads up a team looking at homophobia and sexual harassment in Ontario schools, told Xtra in April that more numbers are not what’s needed.

“We don’t need to be convinced there’s an issue,” she said. “We don’t want to waste our time demonstrating there’s a problem. What we’re trying to identify is people who have solutions.”

Kennedy agrees the results probably won’t surprise many queers. But she says Ontario hasn’t acted on its recognition of homophobia.

“If they accept its existence, why haven’t they done anything?” she says. “It’s time for the elected officials to take some responsibility.”

Kennedy says the survey will be useful when dealing with most governments and educational bodies, although she says Egale hasn’t yet devised a strategy for using it.

“It doesn’t tell us anything our community doesn’t already know but I think it will help us a lot when we approach school boards and education ministries across the country,” she says. “That approach is going to be mapped out over the next couple of months. We’ll start a political campaign in the fall.”

The survey is the first to be done nationally in Canada, but the only school board that agreed to participate was Vancouver. The board in Thunder Bay, which originally agreed to take part, withdrew, citing “logistical issues.”

Catherine Taylor, the University of Winnipeg professor in charge of the project, told Xtra in March that it’s much easier to get straight students to fill out the survey when a school board is participating. School boards are asked to have students fill out the survey as part of class exercises. The survey is anonymous, whether done in school or online.

Kennedy is confident more school boards will be willing to be part of the survey in September.

“I met with senior officials of the ministry of education in Newfoundland and the minister is very enthusiastic,” she says. “The Toronto District School Board has all of the information and they’re having a look at it. There are other boards in Ontario and British Columbia who are interested.”

Egale claims that more than 1,200 participants — queer and straight — from every province and territory filled out its survey, which 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.

The results show more than two-thirds of queer participants reported that they felt unsafe at school compared to 20 percent of straight participants; more than one-third have skipped school because they felt unsafe there or on their way there compared to one-eighth of straight participants.

Forty-one percent of queer students said they had been sexually harassed compared to 19 percent of straight students.

More than 25 percent of queer students said they had been physically harassed. More than half the queer students reported being verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation and 49 percent said they’d had “mean rumours” spread about them at school. Queer students say technology is frequently used against them, with 31 percent saying they’ve had mean rumours spread on the internet or through text messages.

Kennedy says the use of computers and phones has made things much worse.

“Even when we feel we’re making great progress with gay-straight alliances and all, there’s students being bullied online and through text messaging,” she says. “That’s new but I’m sure we’ll hear more about that in phase two.”

Almost 40 percent of straight participants in the survey reported making homophobic remarks sometimes or frequently and 19 percent of queer students also reported making homophobic remarks.