The West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund has added its voice to the ranks of individuals and organizations who are asking the British Columbian government to introduce a provincial policy to prevent homophobia and transphobia in all schools.
"We’ve heard quite a lot from Premier Clark about the need to implement an anti-bullying policy," West Coast LEAF legal director Laura Track told the Straight by phone. "We're glad to hear that this is an important issue to her and her government. But it's essential that the bullying policy deals specifically with bullying of LGBTQ students in B.C. schools."
The non-profit West Coast LEAF isn't a queer-specific organization but is an equality-rights advocacy group.
In a four-page letter dated February 13 and addressed to Premier Christy Clark and Minister of Education George Abbott, Track discussed an October 2007 ministerial order which required all B.C. school boards to ensure that their codes of conduct incorporate one or more statements from the B.C. Human Rights Code regarding discrimination.
"The ministerial order, in our position, doesn't go far enough," Track said on the line. "Merely mandating that a code of conduct contain language that references the human rights code and the prohibitive grounds of discrimination…. We need to go further than that. We need to make sure that schools are directed to provide guidance to teachers and administrators about how to confront the realities of homophobic and transphobic bullying."
On November 1, 2011, the BC Teachers' Federation argued in the B.C. Court of Appeal that only 15 of B.C.'s 60 school districts implemented human rights requirements while the government claimed all 60 districts complied. The court ruled that the BCTF could not use grievance procedures to force B.C. schools to develop student codes of conduct.
However, Track pointed out another problem with referencing the B.C. human rights code—the code does not cover discrimination based upon gender identity or gender expression. Accordingly, she said that transphobic bullying does not get addressed, even if school boards comply with the ministerial order.
Parties concerned about anti-homophobia policies, including parent activist groups and Vancouver School Board trustees Ken Denike and Sophia Woo, have expressed worries about specific groups receiving special protection rather than all students being protected.
However, in her letter, Track cited a 2011 study by queer advocacy organization Egale Canada which discovered that schools with anti-homophobia policies reported a significant reduction in harassment reported by students when compared with schools lacking such policies.
"All kids have an equal right to attend school in a safe environment, to be free from bullying. No child should be subjected to harassment and abuse at school or anywhere else," Track said by phone. "But we know that gay and lesbian and transgendered kids are at a heightened risk of bullying and we know that policies that directly confront that kind of bullying, they work. Kids feel safer and experience less discrimination and less abuse in schools that have those policies in place."
However, anti-homophobia policies extend beyond protection for queer students—they're designed to protect all students. Straight students are targets of homophobic and transphobic bullying as well.
"In one of the cases that actually led to the creation of the ministerial policy, it was a case involving a boy in North Vancouver," Track said. She was referring to Azmi Jubran, who won a landmark B.C. Human Rights tribunal case in 2005 against the North Vancouver School District for not doing anything to stop homophobic bullying against him. "He did not identify himself as a gay boy but was bullied…using slurs regarding his sexuality. And the court there was very clear that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is happening whether or not the person is gay or not."
In December, as a followup to the provincial government's throne speech, the B.C. Ministry of Education announced increased training and resources for school districts to help reduce bullying and harassment. However, the policy did not address any queer-specific issues.