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When will queer youth be safe in BC schools?

Critics say government's new safe schools bill falls short

PROGRESS OR DISAPPOINTMENT?: MLA Lorne Mayencourt says Bill 22 is a 'fairly big step forward' as it makes student conduct codes mandatory across BC. Credit: TJ Ngan photo

Opposition MLAs and education activists reacted with frustration and skepticism to what they’re calling the BC government’s new bare-bones safe schools policy, introduced Mar 29. They say the policy falls far short of protecting queer students and staff from intimidation and harassment on the grounds of real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.

Of the 38 pages making up Bill 22, only one line says the School Act will be amended to make it “mandatory, rather than discretionary, for a board to establish a code of conduct for its students, and require the code of conduct to comply with Provincial standards established by the minister.”

An education ministry statement released after the bill’s first reading says the provincial standards with which the codes must comply are set out in the Safe Schools Strategy introduced in March 2004. Those standards do not explicitly prohibit harassment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

But Vancouver-Burrard MLA Lorne Mayencourt reveals he is working with the ministry to develop additional provincial standards that will provide what he deems “a base minimum” of protected categories, including sexual orientation, that mirror those already enshrined in the BC Human Rights Code.

“What the bill does is enable the minister to say, ‘Everyone has to have a code of conduct,'” Mayencourt says. “The next step [is] that code has to match provincial standards. We’re going to work on an implementation plan, we’re going to define the provincial standards with the minister and other ministry officials, and communicate those to the districts, and say by Sep 1 you have to have these implemented.

“They will have to buy into that, [and] they might also go further than those minimum standards. But there will be a base minimum there,” he promises.

Mayencourt admits that including gender identity in the package of minimum standards is proving difficult, as it is not a widely or well-understood category. “We’re having a little bit more trouble with gender identity, but I still haven’t given up on that. It adds another category to the Human Rights Code which doesn’t exist… I don’t think it’s that big of a deal, but I haven’t got a concession on it. [It’s] still on the table right now,” he asserts, adding that “it needs to be better defined.”

Mayencourt expects the bill to become law “relatively quickly.” Developing provincial standards will “take a little longer,” he admits, but says they should be ready by the end of May.

Anti-homophobia consultant Glen Hansman says “it’s frustrating to see only one line in Bill 22” alluding to safe schools and just a passing reference to unspecified standards meant to guide districts in the development of their codes of conduct.

“It feels like a cart before the horse thing. If you’re going to [develop standards], then tell us what those are ahead of time. Put it in there. Something like: standards are to be developed to meet the requirements of the BC Human Rights Code. A little more specificity.”

Having implementation guidelines after the bill has passed is not the way to go, agrees James Chamberlain of Gay and Lesbian Educators of BC.

The reality is that students need to be protected now but most school districts are avoiding dealing with issues around sexual orientation and gender identity, he argues. Passing a safe schools act without mandatory anti-harassment provisions will allow districts to sidestep the responsibility of addressing those areas, Chamberlain asserts.

“The Safe Schools Task Force report of 2003 clearly outlines that in many school districts across the province, homophobia and racism were two of the largest concerns. Mayencourt chaired that task force as it went around province. The fact is we have this on record, documented, that it is a huge problem and the ministry is showing no leadership,” says Chamberlain.

“There is continual failure on the part of government and this has gone on for over a decade both [with] the NDP and the Liberals. The question is when will LGBT youth truly be safe in schools?” Chamberlain asks.

“People who are in a position of power to make a decision are leaving it up to schools boards, and socially conservative school boards are never going to make these changes,” he argues.

But Mayencourt is adamant that the proposed bill, known as the Education Statutes Amendment Act 2007, will legally require school districts to have conduct policies, and to report on the content of those policies to the ministry, which will then have to ensure compliance with provincial standards.

“If they haven’t reached the provincial standard, we’ll be saying to them, you are required to have [that] as a base minimum. If they don’t fulfill that commitment, the ministry has the obligation to go in and correct the problem,” Mayencourt claims.

According to the gay MLA, one way the ministry could handle a district’s non-compliance, would be to send a school administrator in “to say to school trustees, ‘you’re fired’ until you [comply].

“The ministry is required by law now to intervene, so there’s no chance of not having a leadership role,” Mayencourt maintains. “This statement that a district-wide code of conduct policy must exist is a fairly big step forward. If the ministry finds out someone is not in compliance, [it has] an obligation legally to deal with the problem–or else there’ll be serious problems for the ministry.”

Mayencourt envisages the Human Rights Tribunal and even the BC Supreme Court weighing in on cases where districts “have not done a good job” of complying with provincial standards.

But having a matter of compliance reach the level of a court proceeding is “too far along the process” for NDP human rights critic Nicholas Simons.

Simons says queer youth need to know that government sees homophobia and transphobia as worthy of specific concern.

“We know the suicide rates for queer youth. We know the dropout rate. When Mr Mayencourt says maybe it doesn’t cover everything perfectly but that can be decided in court, well, I’m sorry. If you’re a 14-year-old in some school in the rural part of this province, you shouldn’t have to go to court to defend your right to have some freedom in your school. I think it’s unfortunate this compromise has been entered into, and it’s a compromise to the social conservatives in his party.”

Putting the onus on youth to fight for their safety in the courts is unacceptable, Chamberlain agrees. He insists that the public education system “first and foremost” needs to be leading the charge to protect queer youth. Anything less puts queer youth and those perceived to be queer in danger, he says.

“I think the minister and Lorne Mayencourt and other MLAs who support [Bill 22] without content change are just catering to the extremists who don’t want any mention of sexual orientation issues or gender identity issues in schools whatsoever,” Chamberlain says. “It’s appalling that [Mayencourt] is holding this safe schools bill up as his private member’s bill and that he’s showing all this leadership when he’s not. He’s really failing our community.”

Education activists were hoping that any safe schools legislation would reflect, at first reading, the language of a 2006 private member’s bill that Mayencourt tried to introduce in the legislature. That bill, like its 2005 version, languished on the order table before reaching the first reading stage.

Tentatively titled Bill 20, the 2006 version specifically called for a provision prohibiting bullying, harassment, intimidation and/or discrimination on the basis of all the protected categories noted in the BC Human Rights Code, in addition to gender identity. It stated that district-wide codes of conduct would be continuously monitored to ensure they reflect “current and emerging situations and are contributing to school safety.”

It also called for clearly defined consequences for school employees, students and volunteers who do not comply with the anti-bullying, anti-discrimination provision, and that the provision would be made known to all members of the school community through human rights educational programs.

Mayencourt insists that the language of his 2006 bill will be included in the final provincial standards being developed. “I’m working with the minister on wording [for the standards] that is similar basically [to the bill] I put forward already,” he says. But he admits “that has to be approved.”

The best-case scenario would have been passage of Mayencourt’s 2006 bill, Chamberlain says. “What we have now is nothing. Just flapping gums and paper. It’s not going to change the lives of kids.”