Richmond—the next battleground for a school district policy to prevent LGBT discrimination?

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      It happened in the Burnaby School District in 2011.

      It happened in the Vancouver School District in 2014.

      Will the Richmond School District be the next locale of a controversy over an LGBT antidiscrimination policy?

      Although much criticism has focused on Surrey for not having a Pride parade or flying the Pride flag in the past, Richmond has somehow escaped the same level of scrutiny.

      However, the organizers of a petition asking the Richmond School Board for a discrete policy to address homophobia and transphobia have already encountered resistance in response to their efforts.

      In a conference call with the Georgia Straight, Steveston-London Secondary Grade 12 student Nathan Lee, who is the president of the school's Rainbow Club, said that after he and SFU student (and former Steveston-London student) Kaylyn Munro launched their Safer Schools SD38 campaign, they received hate mail, and parents have been contacting school trustees with concerns.

      Lee said that they after the formation of their Rainbow Club in 2015, they were shocked to discover that their school district was one of the only Lower Mainland districts without a discrete policy. (Note: the word discrete means separate or distinct, and is different from the word discreet, meaning careful or unobtrusive.)

      While the school board is proposing guidelines for discrimination, Lee said that his group wants a policy, not just guidelines, implemented.

      "The biggest different between a guideline and a policy is that a guideline is implemented by the school district, which is the administration and can be changed or removed at any time," he explained. "A policy is implemented by the trustees and it's voted in, and it's actually solid and enforceable. So we want something that's enforcement, not just like a guideline where they pay lip-service to us."

      He said that the code of conduct already prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and that the board is proposing gender identity to be added.

      "But obviously that hasn't been working, and the reason why is because the code of conduct says, 'No, you can't do this and you can't do that' and it punishes people," he said. "We need to not only penalize people, we need to prevent people from discriminating and that takes education."

      Students experience discrimination

      After launching their petition for a policy, Munro said they started receiving stories about discrimination and attacks from across Richmond.

      "Nobody knows about it because it's just kind of looked over and it's really not deemed as a problem anymore because it's 2016," she said.

      Lee added that a few weeks ago when they held a Rainbow Club meeting, their sponsor teacher was absent so a substitute teacher filled in. At the end of the meeting, the substitute teacher suggested conversion therapy to the students.

      Conversion therapy is a controversial psychological or spiritual treatment that claims, without any scientific evidence, to be able to change the sexual orientation of a bisexual or homosexual person to heterosexual.

      Both Munro and Lee expressed concerns about the conduct of this teacher (which they reported), and Lee pointed out that policy would help prevent such incidents from happening through education about LGBT issues.

      Munro pointed out that many LGBT students turn to school as an alternative to uncomfortable or stressful home environments.

      "When they're at school for half of the day, if home isn't a safe place, then school has to be," she said. "And if you have teachers saying those kinds of things, like suggesting conversion therapy or being discriminatory…[then] nowhere is a safe place."

      Facing discouragement

      Lee said that when they had meetings with the assistant superintendent, he felt they were being discouraged.

      Munro said she felt like they were being hushed and encouraged to quiet down.

      "Trustees have told me that there are some parents who are fearful that their children will be turned gay if we introduce this policy, which obviously isn't true since you can't just turn people gay," Lee said. "There's a lack of understanding in the community and the parents are very fearful because there's this miseducation or lack of education, and they think that people are like a disease and that their child can catch it."

      However, there are school trustees such as Sandra Nixon, who told the Georgia Straight in a 2015 interview that she is a United Church minister and an ally of LGBT people. She said that she supports professional-development training to educate district staff about LGBT issues.

      Munro feels that there are other social factors at play.

      "Richmond is a very conservative city overall so it's really hard to push for a more progressive kind of movement when a lot of Richmond is stuck in that conservative mindset and a lot of Richmond is an older demographic…so it's really hard to change peoples' perspectives when they've grown up in certain ways and practises and things like that which makes it even more difficult."

      Lee and Munro will present their petition to the school board on Monday (November 7), along with stories of discrimination (with some photo evidence) from students across the district.

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