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Rural school board takes the lead

Southeast Kootenay introduces anti-homophobia policy

Queer education activists hope new anti-homophobia policy in the Southeast Kootenay school district will ignite a trend.

“It’s the first rural board in BC to have an LGBT policy. It sets the tone for other rural boards and sends the signal this is not a big, scary thing,” says James Chamberlain of Gay and Lesbian Educators of BC (GALE).

In May, the Southeast Kootenay school district became the third in BC to voluntarily introduce an anti-homophobia policy. The policy prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender, encourages all members of the school community to welcome, include and support everyone regardless of sexual orientation or gender, and instructs the superintendent to ensure all schools in the district implement practices that support the new policy.

Vancouver and Victoria’s school districts enacted similar policies in 2004.

Retired junior high school teacher Earl Waugh is one of the creative minds behind the Southeast Kootenay’s new policy. He says he never expected his district’s trustees to take the lead on this issue.

“I’m surprised,” he says. “The school district is mixed but fairly conservative in a lot of respects.”

Gary Dalton, manager of ANKORS, an HIV-AIDS support network in the Kootenays, shares Waugh’s surprise.

“We’ve never had an out event in Southeast Kootenay,” he points out. For the last five summers, ANKORS has been shuttling Southeast Kootenay residents to Nelson to participate in its Pride Parade. This year, Dalton expects to take two full vans.

“You can’t get an abortion, a person with HIV can’t find a doctor. It’s difficult to find counsellors and doctors who are well versed in sexual orientation,” Dalton says.

So how did the new policy pass?

Two of the Southeast Kootenay’s nine trustees vocally supported the anti-homophobia policy, explains Waugh.

One of the supportive trustees lives right by Sparwood Secondary where a gay student recently committed suicide. The trustee knew the student personally, Waugh says.

Though neither Southeast Kootenay School Board chair Keith Neilson nor assistant superintendent Bill Gook could be reached by press time, Waugh and Chamberlain report there was little, if any, opposition to the policy when it came time to vote. Meeting minutes indicate it was approved, but do not show what the final vote was.

The policy originated about two years ago, says Waugh, when Xtra West interviewed him about the challenges faced by queer youth in schools. Shortly after that, he and another teacher, Bonnie Hayes, were asked to make a presentation to the school board, where they emphasized the need for anti-homophobia policy.

The following spring, the district educational policy committee established a subcommittee to explore developing just such a policy, and asked Waugh and Hayes to “write up what you think should be in it,” says Waugh.

Ultimately, Waugh credits a combination of factors, such as more positive coverage in the mainstream media, with contributing to the policy’s successful adoption.

He also suggests the Jubran case, where former student Azmi Jubran won a settlement against the North Vancouver school district for failing to protect him against homophobic bullying, “shook up the lawyers in the [BC] trustees association.”

Whatever factors led to the policy’s successful adoption, Waugh’s just glad it passed. His old school is quite homophobic, he says.

“It was quite a serious problem for a small group of individuals. One kid was targeted as early as Grade 3 for his entire school career.”

Ensuring the new policy would include an educational component–starting at kindergarten–was important to Waugh. “Attitudes become very firmly entrenched by the junior high and high school levels,” he believes.

Though the Southeast Kootenay’s new policy does not designate any specific courses for gay content, it does say the responsibility for sharing information pertaining to “the sexual minority population” should be shared by all staff.

Chamberlain is particularly pleased with this approach. “They’re not relying on this topic only being dealt with in Personal Planning or Planning 10,” he says.

Indeed, Chamberlain likes a lot about the Southeast Kootenay policy.

The policy also states: “All staff will be sensitive to sexual minority issues when creating and updating district and school policies, and when formulating disciplinary and corrective actions related to incidents of discrimination, harassment, bullying or exclusion.”

Because it acknowledges existing policy, “it doesn’t stand alone in isolation of other policies, and shows an ongoing commitment,” says Chamberlain.

In fact, the only negative for Chamberlain is a reference in the first paragraph of the policy referring to “students and other school community members with alternate sexual preferences.”

“The word ‘preferences’ indicates some choice is involved,” says Chamberlain, adding, “it’s the only tiny thing I saw that was concerning.”

“For a rural board, it’s a really good policy,” he concludes.

Waugh agrees but he’s concerned the new policy won’t do more than collect dust. “Unless someone grabs the issue and runs with it, it will tend to disappear,” he warns.

Dalton vows to keep an eye on the school district and ensure it enforces its new policy. He is hopeful, given recent changes in sex education, that the area’s schools won’t resist implementing it.

“There were two district-wide meetings on developing curriculum in sex ed that reflect diversity,” he says. “There have been no objections so far.”

Now that a good example has been set by a rural school district, it’s time for others in rural and urban communities to follow suit, urges Chamberlain.

“Kamloops and Kelowna have fairly well organized LGBT communities,” he points out. “It shows it’s possible if a couple people can create change of this magnitude in the Southeast Kootenays.”