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School boards query sexual orientation

Halifax teachers upset; Toronto teachers shrug

DO YOU THINK THE TEACHER'S GAY? Both the Halifax and Toronto school boards are surveying employees about their sexual orientation, but each board has generated a different reaction. Credit: Ablestock

Both the Toronto and Halifax school boards are surveying staff to ask about sexual orientation, as well as other indicators of identity like ethnicity and disability.

Toronto’s questionnaire hasn’t ruffled any feathers, but Halifax’s is generating opposition, especially from the teacher’s union. The difference highlights the boards’ respective track records on queer issues.

“What kind of surprises me is that there is more controversy in the press about it than there is at the board,” says Rick Telfer, an out gay school trustee with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). “I can understand and appreciate why there might be some concern. It kind of has that Big Brother feeling to it, but it’s an initiative to deal with employment equity in the board.”

For both boards, the survey is a chance to develop some baseline markers for their equity plans. They want to know who is working in the school systems and whether the employees — both teaching and nonteaching staff — represent the diversity found where schools are located. Questions on both surveys will include race, ethnicity, disability status, sexual orientation and aboriginal status. Toronto’s survey explores a wider range of gender identity and sexual orientation options than Halifax.

“It arises out of our commitment to equity,” says Sheila Ward, TDSB chair and an out lesbian. “At various times the board has identified the fact that for whatever reason we don’t seem to be attracting candidates for hire or for higher positions in the proportions to which that part-icular group may be represented in the population.

“If for no other reason, we think that kids who see themselves reflected in their schools through teachers who look like them or think like them are happier and more content and they do better in school.”

Penny Mustin, TDSB’s executive superintendent of employee services, says this survey is part of an ongoing employment equity and diversity plan. Mustin adds that the unions were all involved in the process of developing the survey, which has mitigated any skepticism.

In Halifax, however, the tone is different. In early May a Halifax teacher, Lindsay Willow, won her case against the Halifax Regional School Board at the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission (NSHRC). In 2001, Willow was wrongly accused of having a relationship with a female student, primarily because she was believed to be a lesbian. The rumour haunted her for years.

The NSHRC board ordered that the school board pay damages to Willow in the amount of $27,375, as well as $1,000 to her parents and $2,500 to the high school student she was accused of having the relationship with. The board was also ordered to apologize to Willow.

Halifax’s questionnaire was announced right after this embarrassing ruling. Carole Olsen, superintendent of schools for the Halifax board, says that the coincidental timing of the survey and the Willow decision “has perhaps made some of our staff more fearful about being open, more fearful about being confident in being able to disclose in the survey and say, ‘I trust the board.'”

At the same time, Olsen says the Willow case has heightened the board’s awareness and increased discussion about discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

“I am absolutely committed to ensuring the confidentiality of the data,” says Olsen. “I am committed to the surveys being voluntary and there will be no recriminations for any employee who chooses not to fill in any questions.”

Unlike Toronto, Halifax employees are required to sign their name to the survey. Wouldn’t they get better data if it was anonymous?

“What we’re hoping to do is the one baseline survey, and then as people become more trusting, if they’re not feeling comfortable now, they could update their information in the database three months from now or three years from now.”

Olsen says the answers will be kept in a separate nonpersonnel database, where employees can see and update their own files.

Olsen admits the Toronto board has had a much longer history of active outreach in the area of communication about sexual orientation although the Halifax board is making progress with gay/straight alliances in schools and school-based community health centres that provide support to queer students.