The Vancouver School Board’s education and student services committee approved revisions to the district’s anti-homophobia policy June 11 that will make schools more welcoming to transgender students.
After listening to more than 90 speakers at three hearings, the committee recommended the revised policy be voted on by the board at its June 16 meeting.
Trustee Allan Wong, who has served on the board since 1999, said he couldn’t recall another issue or item that has heard so many delegations and compared the revisions to the initial adoption of the district’s groundbreaking anti-homophobia policy in 2004.
“It comes down to evidence-based practice,” he said. “Having read the professionals and heard the professionals, this is the direction we need to go.
“It’s been stated numerous times that this is not a medical policy,” he continued. “It’s not a policy where teachers or staff makes a diagnosis. This policy and this amendment is basically clear guidelines to follow, and staff have been going in the right direction since, I believe, the 2004 policy.”
Lisa Pedrini, the school board’s manager for social responsibility and diversity, said the draft policy is “very much in line” with BC and Canadian human rights law, as well as Ministry of Education documents on bullying and safe schools.
Pedrini addressed the “many, many” concerns raised by opponents worried that parents might be excluded from discussions about their children’s transition. “Although it is not written here, the intention has always been that we work with families,” she said. “As educators we know that whatever we are looking at in education, be it math or something about a child’s identity, we’re always more successful with our students when we engage their families. And if a student comes forward and discloses something to us, we always ask them, ‘Have you been able to talk to your parents about this?’ And we plan with them a way they can do that.”
She noted that, for the most part, the revisions put on paper what’s already being done in Vancouver schools.
“We hear quite a bit about parental rights,” trustee Rob Wynen said. “My son is 14 years old, and my first hope would be that he would come to me with some issues, especially around gender. But if he did not feel comfortable with me, I would hope that there was an adult that he could go to, and who better to go to than a teacher?”
But trustee Ken Denike expressed concern that the policy and regulations do not yet enjoy widespread support among parents. “I think the important issue that we have to address is the acceptance of the regulations, acceptance of the policy, acceptance of the policy and regulation by parents — and quite frankly, if there is not acceptance of it, we have a policy and we have regulations which are going to be very difficult to really support,” he said.
Denike read a letter to the committee from a parents’ group called Vancouver School Board Watch requesting further consultation and a thorough review of the proposed policy by the BC College of Family Physicians and the BC College of Psychologists.
Melanie Antweiler read a letter on behalf of the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council (DPAC) executive expressing support for the revised policy in principle but noting “very serious concerns,” including a lack of clarity with respect to the role of parents.
“It has been extremely distressing for DPAC to have to address this issue at a time when our collective energies need to be focused on the budget crisis,” Antweiler read. “DPAC’s last recommendation is that the policy and procedure, when ready, be introduced to committee at a more thoughtful time when there are no other distractions.”
Following the three public hearings on the policy revision, staff reworded a few sections of the policy, including the portion addressing washroom and change-room accessibility, to emphasize that the board would strive to “make available single-stall, gender-neutral washrooms at all school locations and worksites.”
“The intention there is to ensure that there’s a sense of privacy,” Pedrini explained, adding that she hopes a locking door to a private stall will alleviate some of the concerns around “girls and boys using the same washroom.”
Fraser Ballantyne was the only NPA trustee to speak in favour of the policy revisions. “As an experienced teacher, counsellor and administrator, and listening to our staff working today and Lisa Pedrini laying it all out for us, I think parents need to be reassured that the system is not broken,” he said. “It really does work, and there are a number of, I think, ways that we do include parents all the way along.”
Lorraine Grieves, operations manager for the Vancouver Coastal Health Transgender Health Information Program, stressed that school board staff won’t be making a medical determination, nor providing a diagnosis or medical care. “That is the role of healthcare professionals,” she said. “This is not a medical policy. The purpose of this policy, as we see it, is to help make Vancouver schools be inclusive, respectful and safe for LGBTQ students and for others.”
She emphasized that the proposed policy revisions are in line with best practice and research and are intended to make schools safer for everyone.
Student representative Nick Milum noted that students throughout the district support the policy revision. “I’d just like to say that from students at the Vancouver District Students’ Council, we strongly support this policy and the updates to the policy, and I’d also like to thank some of the clarifications, especially on the gender-neutral washrooms, as that was a big issue brought up by many speakers,” he said.
“I don’t have a vote on this issue,” he added, “but I’d like to urge trustees who do to support this policy to bring it forward to the board come next week.”
Board chair Patti Bacchus said the process of developing the policy was an educational experience that revealed how much work still needs to be done.
“I didn’t realize there was this level of debate out there; in fact, I kind of thought we were beyond that,” she said. “So it tells me how critical it is to show leadership as a school board in ensuring we’re creating the kind of communities in our school that we hope for our families in the larger community.”