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Time running out for Safe Schools bill

Mayencourt calls for community support

Vancouver-Burrard’s gay MLA Lorne Mayencourt says public support will determine whether or not his Safe Schools bill is enacted before the new school year, come September.

“I want to emphasize the public is the group that can help me push this across. They need to call the premier, the education minister’s office, their MLAs,” says Mayencourt.

The legislature breaks for the summer on May 18. The Safe Schools bill, introduced on Apr 24, had not yet been scheduled for second reading at press time.

“It’s causing me some concern,” Mayencourt admits.

If passed, the long-awaited bill will require school districts to establish mandatory codes of conduct prohibiting discrimination, intentional or not, based on a number of grounds, including actual and perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. A student who feels they have been discriminated against contrary to the bill, without adequate redress from their school board, may file a complaint with BC’s Human Rights Tribunal, the bill provides.

“I’ve been pushing it really hard with the government house leader, Mike de Jong. I still think it can happen,” says Mayencourt, reiterating that the government will not adopt the bill or slot it for second reading before the legislature breaks for the summer unless public support is there.

But queer education activists say government leadership on safety and other gay-friendly issues in schools is long overdue–regardless of community backing.

“It gets to the matter of whether the government should take this on as an initiative,” says Steve LeBel of Gay and Lesbian Educators of BC (GALE).

“The onus is more on the government to display leadership,” agrees James Chamberlain, also of GALE, noting that activists have been lobbying the current Liberal government and previous NDP government on school safety for queer students for 10 years.

“The real question is how broad-based is support at the Ministry of Education level for funding and implementation” of the Safe Schools bill, says Chamberlain.

Without direction from the province, only two of BC’s 60 school boards have enacted anti-homophobia policies. Two more districts, Vernon and Quesnel, mention sexual orientation in their general non-discrimination policies.

Lacking provincial leadership, many districts will continue to ignore queer student safety and issues such as approving queer resources, says Chamberlain. “They’re afraid of parent reaction,” he adds.

A Surrey teacher, Chamberlain recently found out that his school district rejected a gay-themed book of fairy tales called King & King that he submitted as a learning resource for kindergarten to Grade 3 students three years ago. District spokesperson Doug Strachan told the Surrey Now newspaper Apr 29 that the grade level was “too young for the sophistication of the book.”

“I don’t know what about it would be too sophisticated,” Chamberlain counters. “The school board needs to be able to articulate that with evidence.” He has resubmitted the book for review by the district as a language arts resource for students from kindergarten to Grade 4, noting fairy tales are often used to teach language arts.

At press time, Chamberlain was also awaiting the district’s decision on another book he proposed as a teaching tool, Mom and Mum are Getting Married.

Meanwhile, education minister Shirley Bond tabled amendments to BC’s Schools Act just three days after Mayencourt’s Safe Schools bill was introduced, limiting class sizes and expanding distance learning. The government bill promptly moved to second reading.

The minister was not available for comment on the Safe Schools bill.

Mayencourt says he’s undeterred by the minister’s public silence. “Cabinet doesn’t get involved with private member’s bills,” he explains.

He insists the Safe School bill’s queer content “is not an issue” with Liberal or opposition MLAs, or the Liberal government. Rather, he says “not-to-be-identified cabinet ministers” have told him “the big hold-up has been the reference to the Human Rights Tribunal cases.

“I could remove that [from the bill] but it’s a very important piece of how we change the culture” in schools, Mayencourt says.

He is unclear on why allowing complaints to go to the tribunal might be an issue, speculating there may be concern over increasing the tribunal’s caseload, though he adds, “They’re very good at moving stuff through quickly.”

With regards to the tribunal’s caseload, “I can’t see that it would be a concern,” says its chair Heather MacNaughton

Asked about any other potential issues Mayencourt’s bill may pose with regards to the tribunal, MacNaughton says, “I have no idea what the issues could be.”

The tribunal already has jurisdiction over school services, she points out. Indeed, in April 2002 the tribunal ruled in favour of Azmi Jubran, a former student who filed a complaint against the North Vancouver district for failing to protect him against homophobic bullying.

Though gender identity is not currently protected by the provincial human rights code, MacNaughton says it can and has been considered a subset of sex discrimination, something she notes is consistent across Canada.

LeBel speculates that the Safe Schools bill runs counter to the BC government’s philosophy of delegating power to school boards. “There is a reluctance to say boards shall do this or that. They’re covering their butts. That way they figure ‘we can’t be assailed for any problems in the future.’ That’s my guess,” he says.

“I hope I’m wrong,” he adds.

Meanwhile, in Alberta, Conservative MLA Ted Morton has introduced a private member’s bill of his own, allowing students and teachers to opt out of class if the curriculum makes any mention of marriages being between people of the same sex.

“No student shall be required to attend and no teacher shall be required to teach that part of a course that has in its curriculum that marriage may be a union between persons of the same sex,” reads Morton’s Protection of Fundamental Freedoms (Marriage) Statutes Amendment bill.

If passed, in addition to requiring schools to advise parents before teaching that marriage may be between persons of the same sex, the bill provides that any teacher who refuses to teach a part of a course concerning same-sex marriage on religious grounds will not be penalized.

Morton’s bill passed second reading in the Alberta legislature on May 2.