Less than half of B.C. school districts have an anti-discrimination policy to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, despite research that says it creates a safer environment for all students.
Teens at schools that prohibit homophobic and transphobic behaviour, as well as allow gay-straight alliances and clubs, were less likely to engage in substance abuse, according to research by University of B.C. professor Elizabeth Saewyc. Schools with official policies also reported fewer cases of homophobic and transphobic bullying, says human rights advocacy group Egale Canada.
“It absolutely makes a difference when it’s made explicit,” said Ryan Dyck, Egale’s director of research and policy.
“We found that in schools with explicit anti-homophobia and anti-transphobia policies, students were far more likely to report feeling connected to schools and their school communities. They were also far more likely to feel comfortable reporting bullying to a teacher or classmate and, generally, they reported feeling safer.”
Only 24 of the province’s 60 school districts have policies that explicitly prohibit homophobic and transphobic behaviour, the B.C. Teachers Federation says.
Glen Hansman, BCTF first vice-president and former anti-homophobia consultant, said that’s not enough.
“It’s still really scattershot around the province,” he said. “Each school district — it’s up to them to decide what sort of policies to have. … It’s been one of our big frustrations that there hasn’t been a provincial push on this.”
Colin and Meghan Cunningham, whose transgender Grade 5 daughter transitioned last year, taking the name Harriette, said they had a positive experience with the province’s francophone school board, despite a lack of official anti-discrimination policy.
However, it meant that the Cunninghams had to take a proactive approach in gathering teachers and staff for meetings to share information about what kind of treatment is acceptable for transgender students, whose gender identity or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.
“Rather than us saying, ‘Hey, our child’s transgender, can we get up to speed on this?’ we have had to give them all the materials,” Colin said.
Saewyc said without a policy, it leaves too much to chance.
“It’s great that the school has been co-operative with the family,” she said.
“But if you don’t have a policy in place, it depends on having a really cool principal and really fabulous teachers.
“It doesn’t necessarily ensure that this is the case in every school in the entire district.”
Mario Cyr, superintendent of the Conseil scholaire francophone de la Colombie-Britannique, said the school board has drafted an anti-discrimination policy that will be presented Nov. 2 at its next board meeting.
According to Saewyc’s research, teens at schools with explicit anti-homophobia and anti-transphobia policies in place for three years were less likely to engage in binge drinking or have problems associated with substance abuse.
The stats applied to both homosexual and transgender teens, as well as to heterosexual teens — which she said likely occurs because straight kids are also the target of homophobic bullying.
“We suspect by changing the environment in schools, by reducing discrimination and harassment, it actually makes it a safer space for everybody, not just LGBT youth,” she said.
Official policy also provides teachers with a strong basis from which to intervene when they encounter discriminatory behaviour, Dyck said.
“Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of fear in our school communities today that if we talk about bullying or violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity, that teachers or parents will be reprimanded because it’s inappropriate conversation,” he said.
A B.C. Coroners Service report released last month recommended that coroners better examine the role sexual orientation, bullying and social media play in youth suicide. The panel reviewed 91 children and youth who died by suicide from 2008 to 2012.
Egale Canada reports:
• 78 per cent of trans students feel unsafe at school, with 44 per cent having missed school because of these feelings;
• 74 per cent have been verbally harassed because of their gender expression;
• 49 per cent have been sexually harassed in school within the past year;
• 37 per cent have been physically harassed or assaulted because of their gender expression.
© Copyright 2013