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Too little, too late?

Critics challenge Mayencourt's new education bill

Critics say gay MLA Lorne Mayencourt's new education bill won't make gay students safe. Credit: Robin Perelle

Though his 2003 Safe Schools Task Force stopped far short of ordering schools to deal with homophobia, MLA Lorne Mayencourt is now planning to introduce a new private member’s bill on the topic-three months before British Columbians go to the polls.

The proposed bill aims to prohibit bullying, harassment and discrimination in schools on a number of bases-including sexual orientation and gender identity-and add these prohibitions to schools’ codes of conduct. It also aims to protect bullied whistle-blowers from reprisals.

One of his goals, Mayencourt says, is to provide guidelines for school districts that have not done enough to ensure anti-bullying measures are thoroughly implemented.

Last March, the BC Liberals introduced their long-awaited safe schools guidelines (based on the task force’s recommendations). The guidelines offered school boards a basic template for drafting their codes of conduct. Among other things, they encouraged administrators to add sections outlining acceptable and unacceptable forms of behaviour. But they didn’t specify what counts as unacceptable behaviour.

This time, Mayencourt’s bill specifically aims to prohibit discrimination and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. And, he says, these changes will be mandatory.

His critics don’t buy it.

They don’t believe the bill will make the codes mandatory and, as such, they say school boards will still be left with the option to do nothing.

“If this passes as it is, it will have no impact on safety,” maintains Steve LeBel, from BC’s Gay and Lesbian Educators (GALE).

LeBel can’t forget Mayencourt’s failure to address homophobia in his 2003 task force recommendations.

In province-wide consultations, the gay MLA heard from queer youth across BC that homophobia jeopardizes and undermines their safety and education. Mayencourt mentioned these findings in his report’s discussion section but not in its recommendations.

“If this is his attempt to remedy that problem, it does zippo,” LeBel says.

GALE’s James Chamberlain seems equally pessimistic.

So far, he says, the BC Liberals have shown no leadership on this issue. Of course, he notes, neither did the former NDP government.

Nothing will change until a government orders the school boards to specifically address homophobia, Chamberlain says.

So far, he notes, nothing has changed as a result of the Safe Schools Task Force.

With the exception of the Vancouver and Victoria school boards, which took the initiative to address homophobia in their districts, “trustees all across the province have been silent on this issue,” he says.

Chamberlain suspects the only way anything may change for queer youth is for one to actually sue a board when something goes wrong. “It shouldn’t have to come to that,” he says. “Kids shouldn’t have to fight through the courts to get a safe school environment.”

Still, says queer Vancouver School Board trustee Jane Bouey, Mayencourt’s new bill could provide some school boards with the ammunition they need to add some government-mandated protection for gay students without having to fear a local backlash. “This gives a stamp of approval to try and provide ways to prohibit harassment and intimidation,” she says.

But while Bouey lauds the bill’s intent, she says it only addresses part of the problem for gay students.

It doesn’t deal with the root social issues that lead to homophobic harassment, she points out.

She says education needs to be in place to make school staff understand what constitutes a homophobic act. Anti-homophobia curriculum would help too, she adds.

“It’s just one chunk of what needs to be in place,” she says.

Chamberlain agrees.

“There’s nothing in terms of prevention and there’s nothing in terms of homophobic education in schools,” he says. “Unless you try and change the culture in schools, it’s going to continue.”

Bouey also questions why it took so long to introduce such a bill in the first place. And why it has to be brought forward as a private member’s bill rather than a government bill.

“It makes me question the government’s real desire to move on these issues,” she says.

Chamberlain takes it one step further.

“I think Mayencourt’s intent is to get his name in the paper and get himself re-elected,” he says.

Mayencourt says the creation of the bill is part of an ongoing process that is not yet finished. He points to the student safety survey, the task force and the subsequent report as parts of that process.

“It’s time to get the thing back,” he says, as he tours the province for feedback on his new bill. So far, he notes, he hasn’t encountered any resistance to the bill.

Still, he says, he’s come to accept criticism as part of the political landscape.

“Everything I do, they say it’s politics,” he says. “Well, I’m engaged in politics and I use politics to get things done that are important to me.”

With just three months to go until British Columbians return to the polls, and three readings to pass through, the bill will likely die on the order table this May when the next election is called.