After being faced with a $25,000 discrimination complaint through the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, a Catholic school board has responded by dismissing allegations of homophobia as “groundless.” Meanwhile, the gay Mississauga student who launched the complaint is holding a week-long conference on gay-straight alliances (GSAs).
Christopher Karas filed a complaint with the tribunal in February against the francophone school board Conseil Scolaire de District Catholique Centre-Sud (CSDCCS). As a Grade 12 student at École Secondaire Catholique Sainte-Famille, he claims he encountered resistance to starting a GSA, as well as negligence in addressing homophobic attitudes among students and within the school’s curriculum.
“The complaint is unfounded and must be rejected by the tribunal,” reads an April 16 statement from the board that summarizes its response. “There was no discrimination based on sexual orientation, nor were there discriminatory practices.”
The response centres on four main points.
Karas alleged a series of homophobic slurs from teachers and students that were met with impunity. The student claimed that a religious instructor said gay people shouldn’t be allowed to adopt and that teachers allowed students on a class trip two years ago to change sleeping arrangements out of discomfort with sharing a room with a gay student. The board says it “did everything possible to offer the student its support and to intervene in cases of discriminatory language.”
Karas also said the novel Poison, by Doric Germain, is inappropriate for a publicly funded school. The book depicts a gay teenager who is beaten by his father and called a faggot after he is caught having sex with another boy. The incident pushes the boy into a drug-filled street life. Karas said a teacher failed to portray the beating as morally wrong. He also believes the book links homosexuality with moral deterioration and wants Poison removed from the curriculum. The board says the book “complies with the Ontario curriculum and contains no hate literature.”
In addition, Karas said he was met with resistance when he tried to start a GSA at his school, with delays spanning a year and a half. According to a 2012 Ontario anti-bullying law, publicly funded schools must allow students to form GSAs. The board has replied that the “group was granted within a reasonable time frame” and noted its financial support.
Finally, Karas noted that the school rejected the group’s posters because they included a Harvey Milk quote. He says school staff also suggested changing the words “sexual orientation” to “self-expression.” The board chalks this up to “the absence of support from other group members and from a breach of procedures.” Without giving any specifics, the board claims that “this was in no way a case of censorship.”
In addition to the monetary damages, Karas’s complaint seeks a letter of apology, a policy on harassment and discrimination, mandatory sensitivity training, gender-neutral washrooms in all schools and removal of the book Poison from the curriculum. Karas says he’s disappointed the board’s first response is to deny.
“I would’ve wanted them to listen and understand what I was feeling,” Karas tells Xtra. “They’re not addressing the issue, which is building safe spaces.”
Karas, who is in the school less as he completes a cooperative learning placement, says students now watch their words around him, but otherwise the environment is not supportive for LGBT people. “It’s important to have the teachers know how to address these issues,” he says.
Karas is now deciding whether to submit a response to the tribunal, which will then move to mediation. If no solution is found, the issue proceeds to a court-style hearing at which an adjudicator will issue a ruling within a year of the February complaint.
“I honestly believe I’ve already won. They’re paying for a law firm to reject everything I’ve said,” says Karas, who has also hired a lawyer. “They are putting our tax dollars at work instead of trying to address this issue.”
NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo is co-hosting a press conference with Karas about GSAs at Queen’s Park on Wednesday, April 23 at 12:30pm. Karas is also working with the anti-discrimination group Jer’s Vision to host a week-long training conference on GSAs called Dare to Stand Out.