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What now for queer students?

Province's plans may cripple queer-positive education policies

WHAT'S NEXT? Outgoing VSB trustee Jane Bouey worries the province has plans that will move the power to implement queer-positive policies in schools out of the hands of BC's school board trustees Credit: (Lori Kittelberg photo)

Queer education activists are keeping a close watch on the new NPA-dominated Vancouver School Board (VSB) to ensure it doesn’t move to roll back the comprehensive anti-homophobia policy enacted by the previous COPE-dominated board.

“Personally, I think it’s pretty disappointing,” says James Chamberlain, teacher and member of Gay and Lesbian Educators of BC (GALE) of last month’s election results. “We have lost so many progressive voices in Vancouver,” he laments.

The anti-homophobia policy, passed in 2004, promised: The VSB “is committed to enabling all lesbian, gay, transgender, transsexual, two-spirit, bisexual and questioning students to see themselves and their lives positively reflected in the curriculum.” It also included a commitment to re-training school staff and administrators, holding anti-homophobia workshops, and prohibiting homophobic harassment in schools.

The policy, and the $112,000 in funding needed to implement it, passed with the support of all the COPE and Green trustees. But, the lone NPA trustee, John Cheng, abstained from the vote.

Now the voting majority on the VSB rests with six NPA trustees. In the Nov 19 election, only COPE’s Allen Blakey and Allan Wong were re-elected, along with first-time COPE trustee Sharon Gregson.

Chamberlain says principals, vice-principals and administrators have been “extremely receptive and extremely positive,” about the anti-homophobia policy. He hopes the newly elected NPA trustees will support it too.

But NPA support for the VSB’s anti-homophobia policy could be a moot point if the BC education ministry makes radical changes to school boards.

On Oct 22, BC deputy education minister Emery Dosdall told a BC School Trustees Association conference that the Liberal government would be “repurposing” school boards across BC in the spring of 2006.

Outgoing VSB chair Adrienne Montani, who attended the meeting, says Dosdall spoke about an “expanded mandate” for school boards, “including early learning and models of early programming.”

When asked at a public meeting on Nov 22 whether the ministry wants to expand or reduce the mandate of school boards, BC education minister Shirley Bond said, “That debate is ongoing. We are waiting for the information to be gathered.”

Xtra West was not able to connect with Bond before press time.

Montani says the language used by the province so far in describing its plans has been “very airy fairy,” concluding, “What really troubles me is if they have a plan, they should be putting that plan out now. Why the secrecy? It seems very undemocratic.”

“It makes me pessimistic,” says outgoing queer VSB trustee Jane Bouey. She says expanding school boards’ responsibilities could mean “their ability to deal with issues such as queer student policy is actually diminished.”

If trustee power is diluted or devolved with more control handed to individual schools and parents, the real power will rest with “the whims of cliques of parents,” says Bouey.

“The question of which parents are going to have the time to expend on this stuff has always been an issue,” she continues. “It tends to be parents who don’t have to work full-time and who have the political self-confidence to take on this level of leadership. I worry about a few parents, with no real accountability to the city as a whole, having that level of power.”

“We would not have been able to do our policy development if we didn’t have an elected school board,” says Greater Victoria School Board trustee Charley Beresford. Beresford, a straight ally and former board chair, spearheaded Victoria’s anti-homophobia policy, also passed in 2004.

She suspects an expanded mandate is a done deal. “Tellingly, when asked point blank about the expansion of school boards [the province] hasn’t said ‘no,'” she says. “You would have to assume if it was not under consideration, they would say ‘no.'”

It’s “really unclear,” says Chamberlain, how repurposing school boards will impact the current anti-homophobia policies in Vancouver and Victoria.

“If there’s no autonomy for school boards, policies like the VSB’s could become either minimalized, not given the support they need to thrive and survive, or gather dust on a shelf,” says Chamberlain.

Further, Chamberlain says the province has “an appalling track record” of protecting queer youth. “Even though homophobic violence and harassment in schools are well-documented, the current Liberal government hasn’t done anything to mitigate those problems,” he says.

“The key is for our community to keep LGBTQ issues in schools at the forefront,” concludes Chamberlain. “What students need is not lip service, but curricular change to mirror their lives.”