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Two more BC school districts draw up gay-friendly policies

Education activists cautiously optimistic about progress

Columneetza Secondary graduate Jolene Veitch approves of her school district's gay-friendly policy but wonders whether the school board will 'hold up' against parental opposition to future anti-homophobia events. Credit: Courtesy of Jolene Veitch

The Cariboo-Chilcotin and Nanaimo-Ladysmith school districts have joined nine others in BC in having anti-homophobia policies.

That still leaves a majority of the province’s 60 school districts either working on policies or without them completely.

Cariboo-Chilcotin students and teachers hope the new policy will prevent a repeat of what happened in May when anti-homophobia events were cancelled at a district secondary school after parents complained.

The activities, planned a month earlier and spearheaded by the gay-straight alliance (GSA) at Columneetza Secondary School, were expected to start on May 17 with several informative assemblies, including a video showcasing students’ experiences with homophobia and its impact.

The assemblies and an anti-homophobia walk were cancelled for a variety of reasons, despite the introduction of the new queer-friendly policy a month earlier.

Cariboo-Chilcotin Teachers’ Association president Joan Erb says the board did not support the school within the policy, bowing to a group of “influential parents.”

However, the board policy says it is “committed to a school system where teaching and operational practices honour diversity and promote human rights and encourages ongoing education for staff and students in the areas of anti-harassment and anti-discrimination education.”

Erb hopes that when anti-homophobia activities are planned next year, the policy will be followed.

School board chair Wayne Rodier says lessons were learned.

He says there was inadequate planning for the anti-homophobia events and that the situation “was blown rather dramatically out of proportion.”

He hopes the new policy, which he says was put together at the request of the teachers’ association, will help in the future.

“I think it’s important to have social protections there for everyone — not just that one group, but every group,” Rodier says.

Erb says the association is “generally pleased” with the policy. “It is definitely an upgrade from what we had before, which is nothing,” she says.

Jolene Veitch, a former member of Columneetza’s GSA, is now studying at Capilano College.

She says she’s proud of the district for coming up with what she believes is one of the best policies in BC. It was her GSA that went head to head with the local board over the cancellation of anti-homophobia events, which had received the green light.

Despite the policy, she says she’s not very hopeful the board will be able to respond positively should a similar situation arise next year.

“I don’t know if they’ll hold up,” Veitch says.

In passing the Safe, Caring and Orderly Schools policy, the Cariboo-Chilcotin board noted that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirit, intersex, queer or questioning youth face a unique set of challenges in both school and community.

“Individuals who are dealing with or are perceived to be dealing with issues of gender identity, gender expression, intersexuality or sexual orientation, as well as their families, are frequently the targets of homophobic, transphobic or heterosexist behaviours,” the policy says.

The policy says discriminatory conduct will be subject to sanctions, whether the victim is actually queer or not.

The board now requires each school to have a written code of conduct that reflects the content of the BC Human Rights Code and the federal Human Rights Code, the document says.

In the Nanaimo-Ladysmith school district, the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity policy adopted Sept 1 states that complaints about homophobic and heterosexist behaviour, including discrimination, harassment and exclusion, will be dealt with through consistently applied policies.

It also focuses on increasing parental awareness of the needs of queers.

“The board of education has developed this sexual orientation and gender identity policy for students and employees including those who identify as, or are assumed to be, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, two-spirit, queer (LGBTQ+) or those who are questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity,” the policy says.

Where they are requested, GSAs are to be encouraged at the secondary level, the policy also states.

James Chamberlain, of BC’s Pride Education Network, says he’s at turns disappointed and pleased with the Nanaimo-Ladysmith policy.

“There’s no leadership in this policy,” Chamberlain says. “There’s nothing saying what principals and senior management will do. There’s nothing in this policy around professional development for teachers, nothing to support students who choose to be out at school.”

The policy says the district seeks to deal with specific areas of concern, including education; learning, curriculum and library resources, counselling and student support services; and safety/anti-harassment policy, among other items. 

The board says library resources should reflect the range of Canada’s queer communities and be available in different languages for ESL students.

“They’ve done a positive thing by looking at learning resources,” Chamberlain acknowledges. “The library piece is excellent.”

Counsellors are expected to be informed and familiar with all policies with respect to human rights, homophobia, heterosexism, hate literature, discrimination and harassment, as well as aware of LGBT families, the policy states.

Schools are also expected to have a safe contact for students who identify as LGBT, or may be questioning, it says. Language or behaviour that deliberately degrades, denigrates, labels, stereotypes, incites hatred, prejudice, discrimination, harassment towards students or employees on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identification won’t be tolerated, the document further states.

Such behaviour should be specifically included in student codes of conduct, the policy says.

But there’s no plan laid out on how those goals will be accomplished, Chamberlain says.

“It has fairly weak language,” he says of the policy in general. “It doesn’t say what the board will do to make the changes in the district.”

Having an advisory committee around the policy is positive, he says, but without an action plan for that committee, “the policy may just sit on a shelf.”

There have been no negative responses to the policy, work on which began in 2007, district board chair Donna Allen says.

She says the policy includes input from members of the community and stakeholders, and reflected the work of other district policies, specifically those in Vancouver and Victoria. “They had some really solid work done on policy and procedure,” she says. “This was really easy for us. We never encountered any roadblocks.”

Allen singles out the GSA at Ladysmith Secondary, which she says was very clear on where it wanted to go.

“It’s almost as if the kids were ahead of us,” she says. “The policy and procedures give them support. It gives them freedom to know what they can do to support gender identity and sexual orientation.”