4 min

School board goes all the way

New policy 'embraces' gay-friendly schools

Credit: Robin Perelle

The Vancouver School Board (VSB) made history again last week-and queer trustee Jane Bouey couldn’t be prouder.

These are “extraordinarily groundbreaking” changes, she enthuses, pointing to the board’s new queer policy and action plan.

The new documents build on a series of recommendations the board passed two years ago to make schools in its district gay-friendlier. At the time, gay education activists hailed the recommendations as a promising first step, but cautioned against complacency. Bouey herself, then just a school-trustee-hopeful, described the original recommendations as “ground-tremoring” and urged the board to follow through and turn them into official district policy.

Now, it seems, they’ve taken her advice.

On Feb 16, Bouey and her now-fellow trustees voted almost unanimously to add the new policy to the board’s district policy manual, where it will stand alongside existing policies on race relations and multiculturalism. The board also approved the policy’s accompanying action plan for implementation; they even approved its $112,000 price tag, provided the money can be re-directed from existing funding.

John Cheng, the lone NPA voice on school board, abstained in the vote.

Already, Bouey says, the new policy is having an impact.

Administrators who, in the past, have been “less enthusiastic” about such things as gay-straight alliances are starting to change their stance as they see where the board is heading, she says. And teachers are starting to feel more comfortable incorporating gay-friendly references and resources into their classes.

The VSB’s new queer policy opens with its commitment to providing safe and positive learning environments for all students and employees-“including those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, two-spirit, or who are questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

These students and employees have the right to learn and work in discrimination- and harassment-free schools, the policy says.

“The Board will not tolerate hate crimes, harassment or discrimination, and will vigorously enforce policy and regulations dealing with such matters.

“Any language or behaviour that deliberately degrades, denigrates, labels, stereotypes, incites hatred, prejudice, discrimination, harassment towards students or employees on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identification will not be tolerated.

“Schools will be encouraged to specifically include the prohibition of such language and behaviour in their student codes of conduct.”

The policy then promises to take all complaints of homophobia seriously and to deal with them “expeditiously and effectively through consistently applied policy and procedures.”

And it doesn’t end there. The policy also details the board’s commitment to re-training school staff and administrators, holding anti-homophobia workshops, and adding more positive images of queers to the curriculum. It even promises to make the letters it sends home with students more inclusive of queer parents.

“The Board is committed to enabling all lesbian, gay, transgender, transsexual, two-spirit, bisexual and questioning students to see themselves and their lives positively reflected in the curriculum,” the policy says.

What makes this policy so groundbreaking is its comprehensiveness, Bouey notes.

“It covers all the major areas,” agrees gay Kindergarten teacher James Chamberlain, who worked with Bouey on the VSB’s queer advisory committee to formulate the new policy.

This policy not only addresses homophobic harassment but aims to change the whole culture of Vancouver’s schools, Chamberlain says.

Bouey agrees. The policy moves beyond addressing harassment into “actually embracing” a gay-friendly atmosphere, she says. “It’s moving towards our schools being actually inclusive places and celebrating diversity.

“This is a major step forward.”

And incorporating the queer policy into the district policy manual “gives it legs beyond this board,” she notes. So if the public ever elects a less supportive set of trustees, they will have to actively repeal the policy from the manual if they want to change course on these issues.

“I feel excited,” Bouey says. “In a lot of ways it’s a very difficult time to be a trustee because we’re facing such incredible funding shortages. It’s easy to be discouraged. But when I can look at something like this that we’ve accomplished it makes me feel extraordinarily proud.

“I know for a fact that it will have an impact on students’ lives and make a difference-and that is extraordinarily rewarding.”

But this new policy only applies to schools in the Vancouver district, Bouey cautions.

While a few other districts in the Lower Mainland and Victoria are taking steps to implement some gay-friendly policies of their own, schools in the rest of BC have yet to follow suit.

And “that’s a huge concern of mine,” Bouey says.

BC’s Ministry of Education should be taking the lead on this issue and setting the tone across the province, she says, but it’s not. It hasn’t even released the final draft of the general safety guidelines it promised to circulate last fall, after the Safe Schools Task Force made its recommendations.

“I’m starting to get really cynical,” Bouey says. “The province taking leadership on this issue is really essential.”

Chamberlain, too, has run out of patience. “The ministry of education has totally abdicated its responsibility,” he says.

“The Safe Schools Task Force was basically a sham. It was a PR exercise that didn’t [create] any change. No students’ lives have been improved as a result of that task force.”

Many BC school boards won’t take homophobia seriously unless the government says it’s important, Bouey continues. That’s why the government needs to get involved and go beyond the task force’s recommendations to directly address homophobia. “Otherwise it’s hit and miss and dependent on the political whim of individual school boards.”

A spokesperson for the education ministry says it is planning to release its safe schools guidelines sometime this spring, but doesn’t know if they’ll say anything about homophobia.

Bouey doesn’t want to wait that long. If the ministry won’t take the lead, maybe the VSB can, she says. Maybe it’s time to share the VSB’s new queer policy with the rest of the province.