New Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows policy to help gay students

Gay-straight alliance school clubs work for change

Narisa Windover

Narisa Windover

Motivated by students in the district who have been the targets of homophobic harassment, the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school board has approved a new policy it hopes can help stop this form of bullying.

Some school board trustees were moved to tears when, a year ago, dozens of gay and lesbian students in pink T-shirts attended the board meeting, and shared stories about how they had been targeted for name-calling, intimidation, even violence. Some described how they had contemplated suicide.

School board chair Mike Murray referred to that “very impassioned presentation” as the trustees passed a new Safe, Caring and Healthy Schools policy last Wednesday.

The new policy came back to the board on Pink Shirt Day 2013, Feb. 27.

The policy results from the work of people like Erin Talbot and Kathryn Ferguson, educators at Thomas Haney secondary.

They sponsor Fruit Salad, one of four such clubs in support of gays, lesbians, bisexual and trangendered youth in the local school district.

The kids in the group have similar stories.

Jessica Pickering, Grade 12, said kids back in elementary school singled her out as being different, and “somewhere along the line they decided it would be funny to call me a lesbian.”

In high school, things have been better. She’s got a group of friends, and now wants a school where people don’t get bullied for their sexuality, or their perceived sexuality.

Brad Kostachuk, Grade 10, had attended a private school where he was bullied and witnessed “harsh bullying toward kids perceived as gay.” He transferred to Thomas Haney and has found the atmosphere is much more positive.

“It’s time for us to make a difference for other kids,” said Brad.

“We have to be firm and open about what we believe,” added Heba Abdulmalik, Grade 12.

She has never been bullied, but wanted to be part of Fruit Salad.

“What better thing to get involved in than civil rights,” she said. “Sure, we do get labelled, but we try to make it so those labels are not a bad thing.”

Narisa Windover, Grade 10, described how she and Brad were walking through the halls wearing accessories from Fruit Salad’s flare box – which contains feather boas, oversized glasses, beads and tiaras.

Another student directed some homophobic vitriol their way. Narisa confronted him. Thinking about it afterward, she realized he was a member of a visible minority, who had probably been targeted for discrimination himself.

“I don’t think it’s fair, that in the 21st Century, we’re still dealing with this,” she said.

She said members of the club will jokingly slag each other with “you’re so heterosexual.”

“Because that’s how dumb bullying is.”

These clubs have been controversial in other districts, but there has been no backlash in Maple Ridge, said Ferguson.

The groups offer “safe harbour” to their members, education for the entire school, and give back to the community. This year, Fruit Salad will be giving money to the Vancouver Men’s Chorus, a gay choir.

There are similar groups at Maple Ridge secondary, Samuel Robertson Technical and Garibaldi secondary schools.

Ferguson said the groups are also about building a culture of acceptance in the school, and in the group’s members.

“Out, loud and proud,” is how she tells the kids of Fruit Salad to be.

“And that’s what the policy needs to be,” she said. “It has potential.”

Obviously, school trustees can’t do away with discrimination with the stroke of a pen.

Alex Hyde, Grade 12, was part of that board meeting a year ago, and hopes it results in something meaningful.

“We shared really personal stories about our experiences,” he said.

When members of last year’s delegation saw an early draft of the policy, it was too vague, and they responded. Language has been added specific to the concerns of the students who addressed the board.

“The board recognized that students identifying as: Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgender, Transsexual, Two-Spirit, Intersex, Queer or Questioning (LGBTTIQ) face a unique set of challenges within our schools and communities, including being targets for discriminatory behaviours,” it now reads.

It goes on to describe the board’s commitment to safe, caring and socially responsible school environments, codes of conduct and implementation guidelines.

Alex said it is important to the group that the board now follows through on implementing the policy, and it’s more than just a lifeless document.

That is apparently also the wishes of the people around the board table, and they want the kids to stay involved.

Trustee Susan Carr said the students’ input is what gives the policy its true value.

“Without them, it wouldn’t be as real a policy as it is.”

Superintendent Jan Unwin said kids will be part of a task force that will “bring it to life.”

“There needs to be an education plan – what does this mean? Why did we write it?” she said, adding that this implementation should be done by the kids who “live this on a daily basis.”