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Surrey School District passes anti-homophobia regulation

James Chamberlain cautious about how well the policy will address 'systemic' problems

"I'm very proud of the work that we’ve done and proud of the district": trustee Laurie Larsen. Credit: David P Ball

More than a decade after their predecessors waged a battle to ban gay-friendly books from classrooms, Surrey’s current school board trustees passed an anti-homophobia regulation June 20.

The board unanimously approved the measure, despite facing criticism for sidestepping the establishment of a stand-alone anti-homophobia policy in favour of folding it into other regulations. The regulation was developed over the past year by a committee that included student, parent, teacher and administration representatives.

“I’m very proud of the work that we’ve done, and proud of the district,” school board vice-chair Laurie Larsen said about the regulation, which mandates training for teachers, support for GSAs, specialized counsellor training and inclusion of supportive books in libraries and curriculum, among other measures.

One of those attending the meeting was a Surrey teacher who sponsored the district’s first gay-straight alliance in 1999, only to have school authorities shut it down “only an hour” after its first meeting.

Chris Stolz, who teaches Spanish, English and social justice at Surrey’s Tamanawis Secondary School, told Xtra that much has changed since that era, and the new regulation deserves praise.

“I’m very happy the district has chosen to positively recognize gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people and their contributions,” Stolz says. “It’s detailed, it’s multilayered, it’s inclusive, and it’s something we’ll be able to positively build on in the future. They’re looking at professional development, at school rules and codes of conduct, at library and learning resources – many parts of the school and educational experience.”

The passing of the new regulation is just one step toward his goal of seeing a GSA in every school in the district and fully inclusive and welcoming education, he adds.

In 1997, the Surrey school board refused to approve three books featuring same-sex families that James Chamberlain wanted to use in his kindergarten classroom. The board cited parents’ religious concerns about discussing homosexuality with their children as the reason for their refusal. The battle eventually reached the Supreme Court of Canada, which ordered the school board to reconsider the books based on the same secular, curriculum-based criteria it would apply to other books. The board still refused though later relented on a different set of gay-friendly books.

Chamberlain says the current school board’s new regulation is “a change in the right direction,” but he questions why the district chose to fold the regulation into other policies instead of passing a stand-alone policy like those in a growing number of the province’s other districts.

Chamberlain, who taught in Surrey until leaving to coordinate LGBT issues at the BC Teachers' Federation, also questions why it’s taken the district so long to move forward. “I’m just perplexed about why it’s taken Surrey so long to make this change; it seems like so little, so late,” he says.

“The kindergarten kids in my class the year books were banned have long since graduated. A whole generation of kids have missed out on inclusive public education in Surrey. Will another generation of kids be subject to the same thing? Change has gone at a glacial pace in Surrey. Time will tell.”

School trustee Charlene Dobie celebrated last night’s passing of the regulation, despite initially being supportive of developing a stand-alone anti-homophobia policy.

“This is an important regulation in place,” Dobie said at the meeting. “We can move forward to making our district truly inclusive for all students, staff and families. I can see that your work is not over, as you move forward in the implementation of these recommendations. This regulation is very comprehensive. It really shows the commitment of the working group and the district to the well-being of our LGBTQ students, staff and families. I look forward to hearing and seeing the programs that will be developed for all of our students and staff.”

But Chamberlain said he is cautious about how well the policy will address “systemic” problems that have held back change for several years.

“There’s been a culture of fear developed in the district over many, many years as a result of previous trustees’ actions,” Chamberlain says, adding that a concrete plan must be created to implement the new policy.

“The wording on paper looks good. To break away from that culture of fear, of teachers not knowing what they can and can’t do in their classrooms . . . is where the rubber meets the road, with accountability to all the traditional education partners and the LGBT community in Surrey.”

Deputy district superintendent Jordan Tinney presented the new regulation to the school board at the meeting, hailing the involvement of students, in particular, in developing the policy.

“We hope this will close one or more books on our history,” Tinney said. “We’re ready to move forward.”