3 min

Victory after all

North Van school board liable for 'hellish' high school experience

Credit: Jacques Gaudet

The long wait for justice may have finally ended for a former North Vancouver student who was repeatedly punched, spat upon and called a faggot throughout his high school years.

On Apr 6, BC’s Court of Appeal ruled that Azmi Jubran’s former North Vancouver school board is liable after all for the homophobic attacks he endured.

The ruling reverses a 2003 BC Supreme Court finding, and upholds an earlier Human Rights Tribunal finding that the school board was liable for the discriminatory conduct of its students and should have taken proactive steps to make its schools safer.

The Appeal Court’s decision will likely add considerable weight to the call for anti-homophobic polices at all BC schools, say queer education activists.

Between congratulatory cross-Canada telephone calls from relatives, friends and even well-wishing strangers, Jubran, now 24, told Xtra West that he is sleeping better these days.

“It’s a big load off my back,” he says.

After getting a heads-up call from his lawyer last week that the court decision was imminent, Jubran says he momentarily lost his breath. “This was so important to me.”

The appeal court ruling re-instates Jubran’s $4,500 award for injury to his dignity, feelings and self-respect.

It also upholds the Human Rights Tribunal’s order that the North Vancouver school board cease its contravention of the human rights code and refrain from committing the same or similar contraventions.

All three judges on the appeal court panel dismissed a controversial 2003 BC Supreme Court ruling that Jubran was not entitled to protection under the human rights act because he is not gay.

Justice Risa Levine described the Supreme Court’s human rights interpretation as “too narrow.”

“Discrimination focuses not on the actual characteristics of the person but on the attitudes, prejudices and stereotypes of others that impose limitations on that person’s human dignity, respect and right to equality,” she ruled.

“It’s the first such case in Canada dealing with student on student harassment,” Frances Kelly, Jubran’s lawyer, told Xtra West after the historic ruling. “There is evidence that a lot of this type of discrimination is going on across BC and Canada.”

“The decision is significant,” she continues, “because it says schools must ensure there is a discrimination-free environment. And it means harassed students don’t have to declare whether they are gay or not. It doesn’t matter.”

Levine ruled that it made no difference that Jubran’s attackers denied perceiving him as gay. “[T]he law is clear that it is the effect of the actions, not the intent or belief of the actors, that is the basis for determining whether discrimination has occurred.”

Jubran’s schoolmates started harassing him in 1993, when he was 13 years old. They called him a homo, a faggot and gay.

He told his fellow students he was not gay, but the name calling continued throughout his high school years, sometimes accompanied by pushing and shoving in gym class and in the hallways.

The administration at Handsworth High School documents over 12 incidents of harassment during Jubran’s grade 11 year, both inside and outside of school. In grade 12, Jubran reported five incidents, including having a coin-sized hole burned into his shirt by a lighter.

“It was nothing less than hell,” says Jubran today of his high school experience.

By a two-to-one margin, the Appeal Court upheld the Human Rights Tribunal’s 2002 ruling, which directed the North Vancouver school board to take proactive steps to wipe homophobia out of its district, rather than continuing to respond on a case-by-case basis.

The North Vancouver school board claims to have learned from the experience. But the anti-bullying program it adopted after Jubran’s graduation does not mention the word homophobia.

“The message we’re sending is that all forms of verbal harassment are unacceptable,” Richard White, a North Vancouver school trustee, told Xtra West after the BC Supreme Court ruling in 2003.

But that’s not good enough, say many gay education activists, including James Chamberlain of BC’s Gay and Lesbian Educators (GALE).

“Specifically addressing homophobic discrimination is key,” says Chamberlain. “What happened in North Vancouver is not uncommon in BC schools. And most boards turn a blind eye to the subject.”

Chamberlain and Steve LeBel, also of GALE, say an important opportunity was missed to direct school boards to specifically address homophobia in codes of conduct in the report produced by the 2003 Safe Schools Task Force, chaired by gay MLA Lorne Mayencourt.

“The report did a good job of describing the nature of the problem,” says LeBel, but not one of its recommendations directly addressed the issue. “It’s like telling a kid with a broken arm that’s bad news but not doing anything about it.”

Jane Bouey, a queer Vancouver school board trustee, says the Jubran legal victory will carry “considerable weight” in encouraging boards to take action around the development of inclusive codes of conduct.

But, she says, strengthened conduct codes will not end discrimination unless accompanied by resources and age-appropriate curriculum content ranging from gay-friendly books to the inclusion of gay issues in sex education and English literature classes.

For his part, Jubran is hopeful the court ruling will force school boards to provide students with a safe place to learn. “Nobody should have to deal with what I was subjected to.”

Ken Neale, North Vancouver’s Safe and Caring Schools Coordinator, says the school board is considering the possibility of an appeal.