Patti Bacchus: Education Minister Rob Fleming should tell controversial Chilliwack school trustee Barry Neufeld to go

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      Long-time Chilliwack school trustee Barry Neufeld ignited a social-media firestorm earlier this week with a Facebook post claiming he had to “stand up and be counted” for his views opposing mandatory sexual-orientation and gender-identity school-board policies and curriculum resources that support them.  

      And counted he was, among other things, including calls for his resignation and encouragement for him to leave the country. 

      Neufeld’s controversial post claimed the new curriculum that was “supposed to combat bullying...quickly morphed into a weapon of propaganda to infuse every subject matter from K-12 with the latest fad: Gender theory.”

      "Nothing short of child abuse"

      Acknowledging that he was risking “being labelled a bigoted homophobe,” in the post—which disappeared from view on Tuesday —he went on to express support for “traditional family values” and stated that “allowing little children choose to change gender is nothing short of child abuse”.

      Neufeld spewed his antediluvian views on gender identity and same-sex marriage, concluding that “if this represents the values of Canadian society, count me out! I belong in a country like Russia, or Paraguay, which recently had the guts to stand up to these radical cultural nihilists.”  

      Several social-media responders agreed they’d happily count him out and encouraged him to pack his bags and head off to Russia or Paraguay, while others, including me, called for his resignation from the school board.

      Education Minister Rob Fleming opted for a low-key response, dismissing the elected trustee’s comments as “outlier views” during a media scrum on Tuesday.

      Ministry communications staff gave me a transcript of Fleming’s comments that said the minister disagreed with Neufeld: “We have been working on an anti-bullying strategy now for five years. We have a human rights code that protects transgendered people in British Columbia, including young people in our school system.”

      Minister's disappointing response

      I was a little surprised that the minister, whose government has been in power for just three months, claimed credit for the work being done during the past five years. More importantly, though, I was disappointed at his response to a reporter’s question about whether or not Neufeld should be removed from office.

      “I don't think we need to do that. Look, he has his views. He is, unfortunately, not a role model in the school system on this issue. He is a long-serving trustee. I'm sure that, you know, people have had conversations with individuals who have, unfortunately, outdated and bigoted views like this on a whole range of issues.”

      Come on. Having conversations with individuals with bigoted views is one thing, but having them governing public-school boards is quite another.

      I was hoping for something more decisive and reassuring from the minister, like “this kind of intolerance has no place on B.C.’s public-school boards and I’m asking Trustee Neufeld to resign, immediately.”

      Clear message not sent

      That would have demonstrated leadership and sent a clear message to public-school parents and students—especially trans students and their families—that it’s offensive and unacceptable for an elected school trustee to spread misinformation and what sounds an awful lot like hate to me.

      Alberta Premier Rachel Notley struck the right, decisive tone this week in response to Catholic school officials’ plan to develop an alternative sex-education curriculum to be taught in Alberta’s publicly funded Catholic schools.

      "Nowhere do the rights of religious freedom extend to that person's right to somehow attack or hurt others—and that's what's happening here," Notley said Tuesday.


      Racism would have seen different response

      Would Fleming have responded differently if an elected trustee spouted racist or anti-immigrant views on social media? I bet he would have.

      The education minister has the power to fire school boards but no ability to remove individual trustees, so that’s not an option. Boards themselves are limited in terms of actions they can take to rebuke trustees who engage in questionable conduct.

      We ran into this in Vancouver a few years ago when two trustees were captured on video spreading misinformation about the Vancouver school board’s antihomophobia policy (now amended and called Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity policy).

      When several students and community members called for the two trustees to apologize and/or resign, the board passed a censure motion and restated our commitment to the policy.

      BCTF called for resignation

      Glen Hansman, the president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, also called on Neufeld to resign this week.

      Hansman cited the case of Chris Kempling, a Quesnel teacher and guidance counsellor who was suspended from teaching in 2002 for letters he wrote to a newspaper expressing his views opposing homosexuality. Kempling’s suspension was based on the claim that the letters were discriminatory and derogatory and contrary to the B.C. College of Teachers’ commitment to provide a supportive learning environment for all students. 

      Kempling and his supporters fought the suspension in court, where the judge ruled that “discriminatory speech can stifle the speech and social participation of others, and thus does not deserve protection under the charter. 

      "By publicly linking his private, discriminatory views of homosexuality with his status and professional judgment as a teacher and secondary school counsellor, the appellant called into question his own preparedness to be impartial in the fulfilment of his professional and legal obligations to all students, as well as the impartiality of the school system," the judge wrote. 

      "That in itself is a harmful impact on the school system as a non-discriminatory entity."

      Such statements make LGBTQ kids feel unsafe

      Words like Neufeld’s hurt and harm kids and may stick with some for a long time. Statements like those from someone in a leadership position empower and embolden others with hateful, intolerant views to speak out too, making LGBTQ kids feel even less safe than they already do.

      When we revised the Vancouver school board’s former antihomophobia policy from 2004 in 2014 to codify protections and supports for trans students, we heard from many parents and youth about how important it was to have safe and supportive school environments. Some of the stories were heartbreaking, while others were uplifting. Some told us how they’d gone from anxious, school-avoiding youth who considered taking their own lives to thriving, happy students when they found supportive and safe learning environments with clear policy protections.

      After the policy changes were adopted, a youth told a local newspaper that they hadn’t been going to school but planned to return because of the policy protections. As a school trustee, I wanted every single student to thrive in school, and Neufeld should too. The hateful words he posted on Facebook send a different, chilling message that may frighten some students away from even going to school.

      Neufeld issued a nonapology on Wednesday, saying: “I want to apologize to those who felt hurt by my opinion.” That’s not good enough.

      B.C. educators release unprecedented joint statement

      The whole ugly affair promoted an unprecedented joint statement released Wednesday—on behalf of Fleming, the BCTF, the B.C. School Superintendents' Association, the B.C. School Trustees' Association, the B.C. Principals and Vice-Principals' Association, the B.C. Association of School Business Officials, the Federation of Independent School Associations, and the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils—entitled “Standing Up for Inclusion in Schools.”

      It says: "We believe that all schools in our province, public and independent, must be spaces that are safe, acceptable, respectful, and welcoming for all students, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, race, religion or background. There is no room for discrimination in B.C. schools.

      "As provincial education partners, we are unified in this commitment. It is important that we all stand up and together to support inclusive-learning environments. Our goal as teachers, administrators, support staff, trustees and parents is to create learning environments where all students can thrive and live authentic lives."

      The statement didn’t mention Neufeld but sent a good, united message.

      They should have taken it a step further and called for Neufeld’s resignation.

      If they couldn’t agree on that, Fleming should call for it himself.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.