British Columbia is consulting education partners while planning tougher anti-bullying policies to improve school safety for all students, including those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT).
Action was promised recently by Premier Christy Clark, who gained a reputation as an anti-bullying advocate while working as a talk-show host at CKNW radio, but details have not been released.
â€œMy government is going to … do more to make sure that every child, as much as is possible, is protected from bullying in their school,â€� she told the legislature recently. â€œNo matter what the cause or reason [for] that bullying, it is unacceptable.â€�
Clark described the issue as urgent, but the opposition NDP says she favours talk over action. It has challenged her to follow the lead of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, who recently reached out to gay teens with his own â€œIt Gets Betterâ€� video and introduced a bill requiring boards of education to develop anti-bullying policies, promote tolerance and support students who want gay-straight clubsâ€” student-led alliances that support LGBT kids â€” in their schools.
McGuinty has been hit with a storm of protest from religious groups, and some say Clark should expect the same if she proposes an anti-bullying policy that pays special attention to LGBT students or requires gay-straight alliances in faith-based schools.
â€œWe would be 100 per cent behind a policy or legislation that was against all forms of bullying,â€� said Doug Lauson, president of the Federation of Independent School Associations of B.C., in an interview Wednesday. â€œBut to emphasize one form of bullying would be problematic.â€�
Lauson, who is also superintendent of Catholic independent schools, said none of his schools has a gay-straight alliance and he doesnâ€™t believe they are necessary because Catholic schools have student councils to protect studentsâ€™ rights.
On the other side of the debate is the B.C. Teachersâ€™ Federation (BCTF), which has been demanding better protection for LGBT student for years. Vice-president Glen Hansman said the union met with government officials recently to press for an anti-bullying policy in all schools that would pay particular attention to homophobic and racist bullying.
â€œWhile it is more comfortable for many to stay within the comfort zone of generic bullying, the effects of racist and homophobic harassment are very real for the people who are the targets … and racism and homophobia donâ€™t get addressed if we only speak of bullying,â€� he said.
Only 15 of 60 B.C. school districts have policies that specifically address homophobia, the union says. That includes the Burnaby district, which introduced its new policy in the spring and faced angry protests from parents who insisted that the district provide equal protection for all victims of bullies.
They also said they feared the policy could lead to classroom lessons that conflict with their traditional family and religious values.
B.C.â€™s representative for children and youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, another influential voice, recently called on government to introduce a provincewide sexual-orientation and gender-identity policy for all schools to ensure LGBT students are supported and protected.
â€œWe know LGBT youth, like all young people, have challenges in their lives,â€� Turpel-Lafond wrote in a letter to the premier. â€œWe also know those challenges can be dramatically compounded by experiences of being bullied, discriminated against or abused. For LGBT youth, this abuse often takes place in a school environment, and that is unacceptable.
â€œWe have a responsibility to do everything possible to make B.C. schools safe, welcoming places for all students.â€�
Hansman said schools need a cultural shift as well as an anti-bullying policy to ensure aboriginals, cultural minorities and LGBT people are depicted in lessons and learning resources.
â€œA proactive, clear message and a plan of action from the province on these matters would go a long way to ensuring positive movement on the part of schools and school districts that have been more reluctant, that have ignored racism or homophobia, or that have not done quite as much as they should have,â€� he said in an email.
In 2006, it appeared B.C. was moving in that direction when the government signed a deal to end a human-rights complaint from two gay activists, promising to inject gay-friendly lessons across the K-12 curriculum in public schools. But, Hansman said, the culture change that was expected after the Corren agreement still hasnâ€™t happened. (Faith-based and other independent schools were unaffected by the deal.)
While Clark has not specified what action she has in mind, the Education Ministry issued a request for proposals Thursday from contractors capable of helping parents, teachers and administrators recognize and talk to children about bullying, and training school staff to create positive, safe environments for students.
Read more education news at vancouversun.com/reportcard