The short answer is that anti-harassment policies in schools don’t work, and this is being addressed in a Burnaby school district here in Canada. The public response surprisingly seems to be quite polarizing and the school trustees are trying to tread the political waters very carefully. But is it really a public response?
Burnaby, for those readers who may not know, is one of several multicultural and diverse cities making up the greater urban built-up area in the lower Fraser Valley commonly called ‘Vancouver’ (locally called ‘The Lower Mainland’ versus the somewhat confusing Vancouver Island urban population locally called ‘The Island,’ which happens to include the capital city of Victoria!). Greater Vancouver is a major city of about 4 million in Canada’s most western province, British Columbia, and is consistently rated as one of the best cities in the world to live… unless you’re a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered or questioning student, that is. And we know this because under anti-harassment school policies:
- Three-quarters of LGBTQ students and 95% of transgender students felt unsafe at school, compared to one-fifth of straight students. Six-of-ten LGBTQ students reported being verbally harassed about their sexual orientation.
- Three-quarters of all participating students reported hearing expressions such as “that’s so gay” every day in school. Half heard remarks like “faggot,” “queer,” “lezbo” and “dyke” daily.
- Over a quarter of LGBTQ students and almost half of transgender students had skipped school because they felt unsafe, compared to less than a tenth of non-LGBTQ students. (Source)
Compared to heterosexual youths, LGBTQ youth going to school under current anti-harassment policies were more likely:
- To have experienced physical and sexual abuse, harassment in school, and discrimination in the community
- To have reported emotional stress, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts In addition:
- LGB youth felt less cared about by parents and less connected to their families than heterosexual teens, and for lesbian and bisexual females less connected to school.
- When bisexual youth reported high family and school connectedness, their probability of suicide attempts was much lower than for bisexual youth with lower connectedness, even when they had strong risk factors for suicide. (Source)
So why do school districts need to do anything about this at if it stirs up so much heated anti-policy local response which costs trustees their jobs?
The Auditor General of BC has ordered that:
“School districts should: Provide teachers with suitable guidance for encouraging tolerance and respect for students of same sex orientation.” (#9, page 62)
The BC School Trustees Association has stated that:
“the BCSTA encourages and supports school district policies that specifically address the safety concerns of, and prohibits discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans-identified students, as well as students who are harassed due to perceptions of their gender identity or sexual orientation; and has the Education committee draft a sample policy to aid school districts in this process.” (Source)
Perhaps most telling are the findings from the BC government’s Safe School Task Force:
“From our conversations with British Columbians all across the province, we have learned that bullying behaviour is often founded in discrimination based on perceived “differences” such as race, disability, gender or sexual orientation; that discrimination can have a negative impact upon student psychological and emotional health; and that bullying can contribute to decreased student participation in school and failure to graduate.”
“The Task Force members heard that even the perception of being homosexual or of being tolerant of homosexuality is enough to result in harassment and intimidation, including both emotional and physical abuse from those who choose to bully.”
“Presenters expressed concerned about the frequent use of homophobic language in schools. For example, the use of pejoratives such as “that’s so gay” have become common in the lexicon of students for describing negative events or as an insult to make students who are, or are perceived to be gay, uncomfortable.”
Against this background, Burnaby has completed a draft policy that states:
a) Teachers shall be encouraged to embed and integrate LGBTQ issues into existing curriculum in age-appropriate ways to help students acquire the skills and knowledge to understand the impacts of homophobia and transphobia upon society, and
b) School staffs shall be encouraged to support LGBTQ people by teaching about their positive contributions to society and modeling acceptance of diversity.
So what’s the big deal here? The school district has to do this and there’s lots of good evidence that something needs to change. But the interesting question is: Why is it that Burnaby – the 12th school district to formulate such a policy in BC – is suddenly faced with such stiff ‘public’ opposition where none existed for the other 11 school districts? Don’t you find that a bit… shall we say… suspicious?
A group known as Parents’ Voice has organized against this policy in Burnaby. They claim to be merely an ad hoc community group of concerned individuals, but when one digs a little deeper one finds that it is in everything but name a religious group. Why are we not surprised that a religious group would be behind some push to keep the old that doesn’t work and protest the new that does? Faith-based belief is immune (read ‘superior’) to contrary evidence, of course.
In their organization’s news release, we find the following comments… with a bit of bold added by me for emphasis, but of course no specific mention of their ad hoc community group’s major religious tie:
Growing numbers of students, parents and other tax-payers are concerned that the Board’s failure to provide full disclosure may be a deliberate attempt to hide the fact that there is a hidden political agenda—an agenda that doesn’t respect parental rights, student’s rights or the Charter-mandated equality rights of Canadians, but instead serves the political interests of activist teachers and their union. Parents’ Voice asks; “If the faith-based community is not considered an ally, does this Board of School Trustees consider them to be the enemy?”
But the game of deceit – what we in the atheist community like to call Lying For Jesus – was exposed when about 100 protesters showed up at the trustee’s meeting and we found out that of the nearly all were members of Burnaby’s Willingdon Church (and almost entirely of Asian descent), who crowded into the packed board room holding handmade signs that read “No to 5.45.” Is this group truly representational of the public? I don;t think so.
One of their spokespeople said “This policy places far too much importance and emphasis on an issue that impacts a few,” said Heather Leung, a local parent with three kids in the school system. “What is being recommended in this draft is a deliberate and systemic strategy to indoctrinate our children with a controversial moral teaching that should be left for families to decide on and wrestle through.” Leung also said the policy labels children and suggests they question their sexual orientation and sexual identity.
Another said ““The draft policy imposes on children the idea that their family is perpetrating negative stereotypes when parents educate their children with the values that are consistent with their moral beliefs,” says George Kovacic. Kovacic believes the anti-homophobia policy uses children as “pawns to promote a particular social agenda.”
So there’s another fine example of religiously inspired intolerance adduced from scripture brought into the public domain (by a tolerated – even celebrated – immigrant minority no less!) – into one of the most successful multicultural cities in the world – attempting to negatively affect needed policy change so that others currently subject to discrimination can perhaps one day be tolerated – even celebrated – by the public at large.
The irony is jaw-dropping.