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Safe Schools bill delayed again

Bill's contents won't be watered-down, Mayencourt promises

Vancouver-Burrard MLA Lorne Mayencourt’s Safe Schools bill has been delayed again, this time until Apr 24. However, Mayencourt promises to introduce a bill with teeth, requiring schools to establish codes of conduct prohibiting discrimination, intentional or not, based on a number of grounds, including actual and perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.

Why the hold up? The government adopted and tabled Mayencourt’s Apology bill on Mar 28, just one day before the Safe Schools bill was supposed to be introduced.

The Apology Act is designed to allow governments, corporations and individuals to apologize without fear of legal liability. It’s his third private member’s bill that the government has adopted, “breaking some sort of record,” says Mayencourt.

“The Safe Schools Act will kind of be another act by Lorne Mayencourt as opposed to what it is about,” if introduced at the same time as the Apology Act, he says.

“Of all the pieces of legislation I’ve brought forward, [the Safe Schools bill] is the most important one to me, so it’s extremely important to me that when the bill is introduced, it has the opportunity at least to play a starring role in terms of people understanding it, really getting the chance to look at it and start to talk about it,” he says.

Mayencourt released his speaking notes to Xtra West, but would not release the text of the bill itself before Apr 24, noting he was unable to get the go-ahead from Government House Leader Mike DeJong to do so.

His speaking notes read: “The district-wide code of conduct policy must include a provision prohibiting bullying, harassment, intimidation and or discrimination on the basis of a student’s race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, political belief, religion, marital status, family status, social status, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or age of that student or that group or class of students, or their parents. Nothing in this section requires the affected student or that group or class of students or their parents to actually posses a characteristic that is a basis for the bullying, harassment, intimidation and or discrimination.”

Mayencourt’s first incarnation of the Safe Schools bill was introduced in 2005. It died on the table when the legislature adjourned for last May’s provincial election. It was expected to be reintroduced last September, but was delayed until February to allow the fall legislative session to deal with other business, then was postponed until mid-March.

“There’s not going to be any change or water-down on the basic principals behind it,” he vows. “The fact that it didn’t pass last fall in a way is better in that we came up with a much stronger bill,” Mayencourt adds.

Having the new bill reviewed by the BC Human Rights Tribunal, the Community Legal Assistance Society and the BC Human Rights Coalition to ensure it can be enforced if passed was key to making it stronger, says Mayencourt. A feature of the new bill, he says, is its focus on the effect rather than the intent of discrimination. The previous bill introduced in 2005 only included intentional acts of discrimination.

“Human rights law does not care what the intention was. It cares what happens as a result of the act,” Mayencourt explains. “If the result of the act is negative and shows a lack of concern for a person based on their sex, age, etc, then it’s a human rights complaint.” Ultimately, if a complaint cannot be resolved at the school district level, it will then go to the provincial human rights tribunal.

Also, while the previous bill stated code of conduct policies “shall be made known to all members of the school community,” the new bill states policy “must be taught through human rights educational programs,” according to Mayencourt’s speaking notes.

Steve LeBel of Gay and Lesbian Educators of BC (GALE) is reserving judgment of the bill until it’s introduced. “I can’t comment on what might be until I see it,” says LeBel.

It’s also a private member’s bill as opposed to a government-sponsored bill, LeBel continues. There is a “philosophical belief” in Victoria that government and policy such as codes of conduct should be decentralized, says LeBel. This means requiring school boards to do anything, including establish district-wide codes of conduct, may be a sticking point.

“If he brings in something we (GALE) want to see, it will be hard to get a lot of government MLAs to support it,” LeBel predicts.

Mayencourt admits he is unsure how his bill will be received in the legislature. “I don’t want to be pessimistic, but this is a stronger bill. It says much more direct things. So it might be hard for some of our members to vote for it. I don’t think there’s homophobia in the caucus. But I do know that there is homophobia in the caucus’ constituencies. This is pretty specific. I mean gender identity, that’s going to be a flash point, I know.”

On the other hand, the province may be ready to legislate codes of conduct protecting queer students, says queer education activist Jane Bouey, a member of the Vancouver School Board’s LGBT advisory committee and a former VSB trustee. Though she agrees there may be “some murmurs” that the bill imposes policy on school districts, Bouey says a motion passed by the BC Trustees Association encouraging school boards to develop anti-homophobia policy was widely supported last year.

“Even those opposed to it felt it was politically unwise to do so,” says Bouey, noting the same may happen in the legislature. “At this point in time, [the Safe Schools bill] will probably get support.”

However, “it angers me that it’s taken so long and needs to be a private member’s bill,” says Bouey, who is “puzzled” that the government will not adopt the bill.

“Perhaps it’s a way for more socially conservative members to pretend they don’t own it,” Bouey speculates.

For his part, Mayencourt is encouraged by the support he has received from his caucus on other private member’s bills.

“I am hopeful,” concludes Mayencourt. “I think it is very possible we could change the culture of the school.”