4 min

Schoolyard bullies

Even in a progressive school, kids aren't always nice

Credit: Mia Hansen

When Jerry was in a Catholic high school, his teachers told him he didn’t belong in his school and students bullied his friends.

“There was this one gay kid in grade nine in my geography class. People teased him, said stuff in class in front of teachers. They didn’t give him a chance. When he did presentations, people would giggle. I was very closeted. I put my own safety ahead of his, and I feel bad for not saying anything. But if I would have said something, I would have ended up in his position.”

Jerry (the names of students have been changed or withheld) came from the Toronto Catholic District School Board, and is now a student at Toronto’s Triangle Program. Part of Oasis Alternative Secondary School within the Toronto District Board Of Education, Triangle is Canada’s only high school classroom for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students. Its purpose is to equip kids with the tools and skills to be successful in the real world.

When he speaks of what happened to his friend, Jerry’s voice quiets and he looks at the floor. “I think there were one or two guidance counsellors who would talk to him. I don’t know if it was to help him or get rid of him. I think they pushed him to leave. It wouldn’t be below the teachers at that school to do that. They would tell people, ‘This isn’t the school for you.’ They said it to me.”

But it isn’t only Catholic schools that create hostile environments for queer youth.

Sally Jordan, the head of guidance at Jarvis Collegiate Institute, says that even “here in the most tolerant and equity-positive school culture I’ve been in,” there are still incidents of homophobia. She names cultural diversity as the origin of the problem. “We have cultures and religions which are homophobic, and they produce homophobic children. Those ideas are internalized at a young age, and they don’t change quickly. I don’t think that’s ever going to change.”

Adina, another student at Triangle, says that at her old school, her parents were called in and told their daughter had to stop talking about gay issues because it was affecting other students. “I said ‘Excuse me, are you accusing me of converting people?’ and I walked out and never went back. At first it made me really angry, and then it made me laugh. It was so stupid and so ignorant that educated people who I thought were intelligent could think like that.”

All of the young people in Triangle have experienced similar situations, and all maintain teachers and administrators were, at best, tacitly accepting homophobic situations. Some had good grades and struggled through, most simply withdrew from the school society. Lisa, in Grade 9 at the time, says she’d “just sit under the stairs by the library and read at lunch. I was really quiet and was pretty much a loner.” She even attempted suicide “a couple of times.”

Charlie, another Triangle student, says coming to the program has helped her immensely. “I withdrew, because I was being picked on. A guidance counselor told me to ‘Stick it out’ but that didn’t work. Here we can relate to other people’s problems. I used to be depressed, now I’m happy.”

For Patty Barclay, teacher and coordinator of Triangle, getting students into a place where they can feel that way is the only solution.

“Kids need to survive before they can thrive,” says Barclay. “If they’re always worrying about being harassed, they’re not going to be able to learn, they’re not going to do well. (Triangle) is a place where it’s safe to be who we are, to explore where we are.”

Fellow Triangle teacher Jim Walker points out that in society, “Being heterosexual is the default position – no-one gives it any thought. Kids coming here will tell you stories about plans to commit suicide so they don’t have to deal with Phys Ed. That’s the background, then you have to deal with the school system, then you have to deal with individual administrators and teachers.”

And, as Barclay points out, many of those staff members may not be comfortable coming out themselves. “Administration needs to say from the top down, ‘Our schools are inclusive, open to everybody and it’s not okay to hurt other people, it’s not okay to target other people.’ There are some doing that now, but way too few.”

Toronto’s public board has programs in place that are supposed to deal with all aspects of discrimination. Vanessa Russell, instructional leader in the Equity Department of the board, explains that Toronto leads the way in Ontario and, indeed, is almost unique in North America.

“This board recognizes that systemic biases exist in society and in our system of education. We know we have to be dogged in our efforts to dismantle them. Teachers cannot opt out of anti-homophobia education. That’s their responsibility as an employee of the board.

“We have the programs the whole province should have. I think there’s other boards doing some good work, but I don’t know anyone else with such comprehensive policies.”

But she’s wary of the lack of funding, and worried that further cuts may be necessary if money is not forthcoming from the province – especially in the midst of the battle between the board and the provincial Tories currently being played out.

“We used to have eight staff in the Toronto board. Now, in an amalgamated board six times the size, we have five.”

And Jordan says that while the board’s programs have improved the situation at schools like Jarvis, they’re never going to get rid of homophobia.

“We’ve run programs, we’ve had people from the board come and run things, we’ve got high awareness,” she observes. “I think hearing, ‘That’s gay’ or ‘You’re a fag’ while walking down the halls has been for the most part eliminated. The biggest problem is in the early years, grades nine and 10. They’re immature. We would hope that through these programs and through greater tolerance in the school system that we would lower such incidents, but we are never going to eliminate that discrimination.”

But the Triangle students say that if people like themselves are willing to step forward, perhaps that discrimination among students and teachers could be eliminated.

“Most people are teachers because they care about educating and helping kids,” says Adina. “We need to have the queer kids talk to them so teachers will realize they’re hurting the kids they want to help.”

Joe sees the solution in peer pressure. “That’s what started it, that’s what’s going to finish it. If more people stopped and said, ‘What are you saying?’ when someone made a remark, it would end.”

The Triangle Program can be reached at (416) 406-6228 ex 169 or