For Anthony Hope, it’s a no-brainer: The Surrey School District needs to follow in the footsteps of other B.C. school districts and develop an anti-homophobia policy.
As an openly gay student, the 15-year-old has faced harassment and ridicule first hand. But when his friend committed suicide last fall, Hope knew he had to take action.
“The biggest thing about it is not specifically the bullying but it’s the seclusion and the feeling that you’re worthless, you’re alone, that you’re invalidated, de-liberated – a feeling of you’re the only one in the world and that nobody cares about you,” Hope says.
He surveyed 2,500 students and drafted a set of recommendations to instigate change.
Tonight (Thursday), he’s joining another Surrey student, a parent, and representatives from the Surrey Teachers’ Association and CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) to make a presentation to members of the Surrey Board of Education, asking them to establish a standalone policy that specifically targets homophobia.
So far, 18 other B.C. school districts have developed and approved such policies. Most include staff development and education, detailed complaint processes so issues are dealt with in a consistent manner, and measures to improve the understanding of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning) people and their positive contributions to society.
Sechelt is the latest to adopt a targeted policy, but other districts include Chilliwack, Vancouver, , Nanaimo, North Vancouver, West Vancouver and Comox Valley.
The only district that faced controversy was Burnaby, where there was some public backlash prior to the board tweaking and eventually adopting its policy.
Students in Delta also made a presentation in April, but have yet to receive a response.
Bullying based on sexual orientation is already included in Surrey’s Safe & Caring Schools policy. Further amendments to policy – that inject anti-homophobic language into the current guidelines on discrimination – also happen to be on tonight’s (June 21) agenda for trustee approval.
But proponents of the standalone anti-homophobia policy say existing guidelines are reactionary and don’t provide opportunities for prevention, education and systemic change like a standalone policy would.
Laurae McNally, chair of the board of education, said prior to the meeting she didn’t know how trustees would proceed as they hadn’t yet heard the group’s presentation. She said the board hadn’t previously discussed such a policy, mainly because the district has been focussed on growth and lack of funding.
“We’ve had other issues on our plate,” she said.
When asked if the board had considered a standalone anti-homophobia policy in light of action in other districts, McNally said she and her colleagues initially favoured a blanket policy that targets all kinds of discrimination.
“The board thought it was better to have it all rolled into one and not single out any particular group, but what they will do as a result of the delegations coming, I can’t tell you,” she said.
Denise Moffatt, president of the STA, says adopting specific guidelines could be an important step for Surrey to move beyond its history.
By history, Moffatt refers to the board’s disallowing the use of three same-sex primary books in local classrooms in the 1990s – a dispute that lasted years, proceeded to the Supreme Court of Canada, and made national headlines (see related story, below).
“It’s another step in shining a light on an issue,” Moffatt said of an anti-homophobia policy.
Janice Meehan, president of CUPE 728, also wants the policy to be specific.
“It has to say exactly what it is – not be watered down – to protect not only students but staff as well.”
Her union represents 3,200 school support staff workers.
Grade 12 student Michaela Milne will also be speaking to trustees. In her final days of high school, Milne is hoping to help other students. She says anti-homophobic attitudes have been “passively accepted” for too long.
She feels change will come through information and education and being proactive rather than reactionary. Even teachers, she says, are unsure how they can respond to issues of homophobia in their classrooms.
“Right now it’s just one big grey area,” Milne says. “If there are a whole bunch of teachers who just have no idea where they’re supposed to stand or allowed to stand… a lot of teachers who could be helping out a lot of kids are left in the dark.”
The delegation is scheduled to make its presentation at the District Education Centre, 14033 92 Ave., tonight (June 21) at 7:30 p.m.
Policy ‘right thing to do’
Court case ‘chill’ remains in Surrey: James Chamberlain
James Chamberlain taught in Surrey for a dozen years before handing in his resignation in April.
If his name doesn’t ring a bell, he’s the teacher who in 1997, asked the Surrey School District to approve three books featuring same-sex parents – Asha’s Mums, Belinda’s Bouquet, and One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dad – as classroom resources.
His request was spurred by a student in his kindergarten class who lived with two moms and was facing some ridicule and questions from other children.
The board of the day denied his request, sparking a book-banning controversy that divided the community and spanned five years, proceeding to the Supreme Court of Canada, which told trustees to revisit their decision.
They rejected the books again, but subsequently approved three different books that highlight diverse family structures.
Now moving on to a principal’s position in Vancouver, Chamberlain (pictured below) says there have been definite improvements in attitudes in Surrey toward sexual orientation and homophobia.
For instance, he notes, there are now far more GSAs (Gay-Straight Alliances) in local schools. The clubs, open to all students, are meant to foster acceptance and inclusion. Ten years ago there was only one school with a GSA and there are now at least seven.
He also says the Dare to Stand Out conference at Tamanawis Secondary in 2010, which featured LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning) speakers, was a watershed moment in the district because there was no opposition from board of education.
“That showed there was the potential for change in Surrey,” Chamberlain says.
But, he notes, a “chill” still lingers from the court case.
“Personally, I’d say there is still a fair amount of fear on the part of teachers to embed LGBTQ issues into their existing curriculum because there’s no leadership from the board on how teachers can do that.”
In Surrey, he says, there is no movement around administrative leadership, professional development for teachers or education for counsellors and parents, and the shadow from the ‘90s’ controversy remains.
“In other districts, we’re seeing movement forward without teachers saying that they’re fearful. Surrey still remains a social isolate, in some respects, around this issue.”
He’s pleased that so many school district across B.C. have developed anti-homophobia policies and that acceptance and inclusion, in general, appears more widespread.
“I feel quite heartened by the change in public opinion and in people’s ability to embrace LGBTQ issues in society and in schools,” says Chamberlain, who has been coordinating social justice programs with the B.C. Teachers’ Federation for the past four years.
“But Surrey is the largest school district in the province and they have the potential to send a strong signal to other boards that this is a timely and right thing to do.”