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Safe schools bill delayed

Education minister non-committal

SAFER SCHOOLS: Vancouver Burrard MLA Lorne Mayencourt says he's going to introduce a safe schools bill as soon as he can, but that other legislative business will likely delay it until February. Credit: TJ Ngan

Lorne Mayencourt’s widely publicized promise to introduce a law forcing BC schools to address homophobia and bullying will probably have to wait at least until early next year.

Though Mayencourt’s promised safe schools bill was widely panned by queer education critics as too little, too late, the downtown Vancouver MLA made the commitment a main plank in his recent re-election campaign.

Mayencourt told Xtra West in an Aug 15 telephone interview that he will introduce the safe schools bill as soon as possible, although other legislative business will likely stand in the way until February 2006.

Debate over the budget will use up most of the fall legislative session making it likely the safe schools bill won’t be introduced until the spring session, explains Mayencourt.

If passed, Mayencourt’s School Act changes would require all BC school boards to implement a code of conduct addressing bullying that is consistent with the BC Human Rights Code. Provisions would be added specifically prohibiting harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Mayencourt, who publicly complained of being abandoned by the queer community after he won re-election by just 11 votes this year, is receiving mixed reviews from the community for his proposed School Act amendments.

He believes early criticism of the initiative was based at least in part on confusion over whether developing codes of conduct addressing bullying would be mandatory for school boards.

The existing Act says school boards may develop codes of conduct, explains Mayencourt. His early draft didn’t clarify that the board must provide a code of conduct dealing with homophobia.

“In the early stages I didn’t address it, but I’ve made it ‘shall’ [develop a code of conduct], which was a big move,” says Mayencourt. “It causes concerns. It opens up legal liabilities, but it is the only way of addressing the issue in schools because some schools want to turn a blind eye to this.”

The bill is meant to correct what some critics called a deliberate oversight in the Liberals’ school safety recommendations released last year. Those recommendations, flowing from the 2003 Safe Schools Task Force chaired by Mayencourt, encouraged BC school boards to pass codes of conduct outlining acceptable and unacceptable forms of behaviour for students. But they didn’t specify what types of behaviour should count as unacceptable-and stopped short of requiring school boards to specifically prohibit homophobic harassment.

Critics say Mayencourt’s promised initiative is an important step in addressing violence against queer youth, but question whether a private member’s bill will receive the required support to become law.

There is also a fear that legislation-tabled without the support and resources of a government ministry-will not withstand legal challenges.

“The objective is good and needed,” UBC law professor Bill Black told Xtra West Aug 17. “It’s encouraging that this is being dealt with,” adds Black, who headed a human rights project for the BC government in 1994.

“Measures are needed to deal with bullying, especially homophobic bullying. If you’re going to bring in policies on discrimination and bullying, it’s essential that sexual orientation be covered by the provision. It may be constitutionally required since the exclusion of sexual orientation would amount to inequality,” he notes.

But Black hopes the legislation is introduced as a government bill. “A government bill would have access to a lot of resources, ensuring that it’s done right. The phraseology is critical to the effectiveness of the legislation. I think the [Education] Ministry should look it over and come up with its own draft.”

Mayencourt is also hopeful that the bill will be government-sponsored but he says widespread public support is required for that to happen. “If we can get some momentum going… it will require a groundswell of support.”

Education Minister Shirley Bond was non-committal when asked if there was a chance her ministry would introduce the safe schools bill. But in an Aug 23 note to Xtra West, she didn’t rule it out.

“As the new Minister of Education, I look forward to discussing this subject further with Mr Mayencourt and am open to suggestions on how to ensure our schools are safe and welcoming environments.”

Jane Bouey, queer school board trustee, says Mayencourt’s proposed School Act amendments are long overdue.

“I would be supportive of attempts to get school boards to take action on this. It’s a real priority,” she says.

But Bouey says Mayencourt’s safe schools strategy is neither coherent nor cohesive because he continues to stand in solidarity with a government that under-funds school boards and resists education curriculum changes that would make queers safer in schools.

Bouey says teachers, counsellors and support staff have been cut because of government funding shortfalls. And, she says, queer activists Murray and Peter Corren have been left to go it alone in a human rights battle with the Ministry of Education over queer-inclusive curriculum content.

The Correns filed a human rights complaint charging that the Ministry is guilty of discrimination by omission and suppression for refusing to add queer curriculum content. The Correns insist school curriculum should include positive portrayals of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered students and same-sex families “Lorne should have stood in solidarity with the Correns,” says Bouey.

Mayencourt says he is unable to discuss the Corren case because it’s before the courts but he contends that the changes he is proposing will go a long way toward addressing queer education concerns.

“School boards must have policies and procedures in place dealing with these issues as they arise. Part of our education system is to teach kids to be good citizens and good citizens understand what the human rights code is all about.”

Mayencourt says he supports the inclusion of queer curriculum content. “If a kid is interested in Queer Studies there should absolutely be an opportunity for that.”