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Students, teachers push for change in Chilliwack

School board agrees to draft anti-homophobia policy

In the absence of leadership from the provincial government, students and teachers in the Chilliwack school district stepped up pressure on the school board to take concrete measures against homophobia.

On Nov 24, the district’s school board voted 5-2 in favour of directing the district superintendent to draft policy addressing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual and questioning issues, and forwarding it to both the board policy and education policy committees for input, according to Chilliwack Teachers’ Association president Katharin Midzain.

The board vote comes just two weeks after Sardis Secondary School counsellor Vic Gladish and about seven students appealed to the school board for explicit anti-homophobia policy in the district’s schools.

“I’m pleasantly shocked,” said Gladish Nov 30, in reaction to last week’s vote. “I didn’t really know for sure until I called our teachers’ association president, and she confirmed what some of the kids had been telling me.”

Gladish says there was “dead silence” after he and the students finished their presentation to the board.

“My job was basically to remind the board that there is this expectation of creating specific policy and to remind them there has been legal action taken in one other school district around this, because of what happened with Azmi Jubran in his school district. So kind of giving them the opportunity to think about preventing that situation, while at the same time thinking about the safety of students,” Gladish explains.

Jubran was a Grade 10 student in the North Vancouver district when he filed a complaint with the BC Human Rights Tribunal in 1996 alleging that his classmates taunted and bullied him all through high school with homophobic slurs. In 2002, the tribunal awarded Jubran $4,000 in damages. That ruling was overturned in 2003 and then overturned again in Jubran’s favour in Apr 2005. Jubran eventually prevailed in the nine-year legal struggle when the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear the school board’s appeal in Oct 2005.

In 2009, all Chilliwack student Courtney Gaudet wanted was for her district’s school board to stop ignoring queer students.

Gaudet, who identifies as a lesbian, switched from Sardis to Chilliwack Secondary because of the homophobia she experienced at her former school.

“I had to switch PE classes because they didn’t want to deal with the homophobia. Instead of other kids being pulled aside, I had to do PE through Distance Ed,” she recalls.

“I’ve had pencil crayons that were sharpened, like really sharp, chucked at my head from the second-storey window of Sardis,” she adds.

Even at her new school, which she describes as more open-minded, Gaudet says the mandatory curriculum does not reflect queer realities.

“Right now, I’m taking Family Management, which is about parenting, lifestyles and couples and dating, and they don’t talk about it. They assume that everyone’s straight, so I find that I get ignored. It’s like, the husband and the wife do this, and you know, there’s queer families out there,” Gaudet elaborates.

“I’m taking History 12, and they’re talking about the Holocaust and I said to my student teacher, ‘Why are they only talking about the Jewish people and the gypsies and not the homosexuals, even though they were in concentration camps too?’ So things like that, you get ignored,” she notes.

“When I hand in my own work, I add a little twist to it because it’s my lifestyle,” Gaudet says.

“I think the underlying message is to make sure that the school board knows these students exist in our school district — that it’s not a Vancouver problem, it’s not a city problem — and that our kids need to feel safe here,” Gladish stresses.

“The homophobia, the harassment that [students] experience because of their sexual or gender identity, I think is unacceptable in our school district,” agrees school-board chair John-Henry Harter, who wasn’t at the board meeting when the students made their presentation, but was one of the five trustees who voted in favour of drafting new policy Nov 24.

“In my way of thinking, who do you listen to about homophobia and harassment because of sexual or gender identity? You listen to the people who are affected and that’s those students in the school,” Harter says.

“The students are telling us they are facing harassment and discrimination and that blanket, generalized harassment policy isn’t cutting it for them. So I think it’s really important to listen to them.”

Establishing a dialogue about this issue is “long overdue in Chilliwack,” Harter adds.

Midzain says superintendent Corinne McCabe has already asked her for policy statements from other districts that have passed anti-homophobia policies. “I’m going to get that to her,” Midzain promises.

“We have a policy development process that will see staff look at policies in other districts, the material that the teachers’ union provided us with, and draft some policy,” McCabe confirms.

“The board already has policy on harassment and on code of conduct,” she notes, but it’s “not explicit for any group; it’s very, very broad.”

McCabe says she’s not sure yet if the requested policy will be an extension of the existing code of conduct, the current harassment policy or a separate policy.  “That’s the piece I have to look at; that’s some of the work that I’ll do,” she adds.

“What I would hope is that she would be talking with some of these kids again, maybe inviting us to go through our presentation even once more with her,” Gladish says, adding that he will be “pushing for some representation” on the education policy advisory committee from his school, which is the largest in the area.

“We’ll seek some input from all of the partner groups in terms of what are the important pieces to take into account,” McCabe promises, noting that “it’s a bit of a process.”

“We hope to take something to the next policy advisory committee meeting in early February,” she adds.

Having policy language is only the start, Gladish says. “The education part is critical,” he emphasizes.

As queer students demand more protection at the school district level, MLA Spencer Herbert grilled BC’s advanced education minister, Moira Stilwell, Nov 25 about school districts’ compliance with a 2007 ministerial order requiring codes of conduct to refer to the BC Human Rights Code prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Stilwell told the legislature that the superintendent of achievement met with each district’s superintendent, and there was “no evidence” that the districts were not working to comply with the order.

“That does not mean they have complied,” Herbert fired back, noting there was a freedom of information request last year that showed there were “only actually eight districts” in compliance.

“I would really appreciate actual evidence rather than just belief,” Herbert said.