Dozens of students say the Vancouver School Board’s decision to censure trustees Sophia Woo and Ken Denike isn’t enough. They want the two trustees to resign immediately for opposing and misrepresenting district anti-homophobia policy and programming in two videos.
A majority of trustees voted to condemn Denike and Woo’s actions at the school board meeting on Jan 16. But Grade 12 student Eli Benjamin, 17, wants them gone.
“I’m asking you for your help to send Ken Denike and Sophia Woo an email telling them to stop spreading hate and unfair stigma, and that we don’t want them to represent us or our society,” Benjamin posted on a Facebook page he helped create. “If you won’t do it for me, then do it for all the people who are being hurt by these messages.”
In a suggested email template, Benjamin wrote to Denike and Woo: “You have failed in your position within the Vancouver School Board. You have infracted and abused your powers and position, and have tried to spread hate within our society.”
As of 7:45pm on Jan 18, the Facebook page had 376 members, and dozens of youth say they have sent the two trustees emails.
“There’s quite a few of them,” Denike tells Xtra, adding he has not had a chance to look through them all.
“I think it’s got to the point where civilization would say someone’s got to back down or it’s going to get very divisive,” he says.
Benjamin says the students won’t back down.
Denike says the school board meeting was out of control and that chair Patti Bacchus should have stepped aside for the session, which, he believes, was clearly political.
Woo could not be reached for comment before this story was posted.
Denike and Woo made headlines in December after they appeared in a video posted by an American anti-gay-marriage group. In it, they discuss their concerns about Out in Schools, a local anti-homophobia program.
When the video came to light, Denike told Xtra that he did not know it was shot for an anti-gay-marriage group. He sought legal advice and now says the video has been removed. He says he has also received advice from a public relations firm.
A second video posted to YouTube on Aug 20 came to public attention 24 hours after the first. It showed Denike and Woo urging potential voters at a Christian Social Concern Fellowship (CSCF) picnic to support them if they wanted to stop the Vancouver School Board from passing anti-homophobia policy.
Burnaby, which passed such a policy last year, is “a lot worse” than Vancouver, Woo told the picnic three months before last November’s municipal elections. Asked at the CSCF picnic if Vancouver had passed its own anti-homophobia policy, Woo replied on camera, “Not yet.”
Denike told the picnic that Vancouver has only a general anti-discrimination policy – “not to try to protect one particular group.”
The Vancouver School Board passed its anti-homophobia policy in 2004.
Benjamin says he was “really upset” by the trustees’ comments in the videos. “It was totally unacceptable,” he says. “It’s pretty hard to defend something like that.”
He thinks Denike and Woo are closed-minded but says the way to heal the situation is through social change. “We’re the determined individuals to make that social change,” Benjamin says. “We will succeed. We won’t back down.”
Grade 10 student Sarah Bercic, who is listed as a co-creator of the Facebook page, also asked for the trustees’ resignations at the Jan 16 school board meeting.
“I don’t want a trustee on my school board who is unwilling to protect every student,” Bercic, 15, told the board, stressing the importance of maintaining a policy that specifically addresses homophobia. “In fact, I don’t want someone on my school board that behaves like a bully themselves.”
In censuring Woo and Denike, the Vancouver School Board also reaffirmed its commitment to its anti-homophobia policy.
Denike says the issue has become “a lightning rod” for the entire Vancouver area.
He says he would like to see the province address it with a policy that covers the entire province. “It shouldn’t be one district at a time,” he says.
Asked to elaborate on what sort of provincewide policy he’d like to see, Denike mentioned parents’ right to remove their children from classes they might find morally objectionable, in an interview with CKNW on Dec 20. “It’s a matter of the parents having a right to withdraw kids if it’s something that they consider sort of goes against their culture, morals or whatever,” he said.
Both he and Woo reiterated parents’ right to be informed so they can potentially remove their children, and the importance of anti-homophobia program oversight, at the school board meeting Jan 16.
According to provincial government policy, parents can withdraw their children only from health and planning classes.
BC’s Ministry of Education issued a request for proposals for the creation of a provincewide anti-bullying program on Dec 15, though whether it will specifically address homophobia remains to be seen.