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Anti-homophobia consultant's hours cut at Vancouver schools

The Vancouver School Board (VSB) has significantly downsized its anti-homophobia and diversity consultant's hours, despite calls for greater anti-homophobia education in schools.

Consultant Steve Mulligan's work is something Vancouver trustee Jane Bouey is "extremely proud" of, but the school board has been forced to reduce his working hours to one or two days a week to make up for the board's significant budget shortfall.

"We had to cut $18 million dollars out of the budget, and eliminated a number of the mentor positions entirely," said Bouey. "We're able to get by cutting his hours in half, but it will mean it will be difficult for him to do his work."

As the VSB's anti-homophobia and diversity consultant, Mulligan organizes "lunch and learn" sessions on homophobia and gender identity for many of the 74 elementary schools in the board, and coordinates the purchasing of diversity resources for schools.

In secondary schools, he works regularly with students and teachers involved in Gay-Straight Alliance and diversity clubs. He's also an oft-used provincial resource on diversity issues.

"He really does just a remarkable breadth of work," Bouey said.

Mulligan was unavailable for comment, but teacher Myriam Dumont says she's frustrated and unsurprised by the downsizing of Mulligan's job.

"I think it speaks volumes about our priorities, and what we see as important," she said. "Honestly, I think [the VSB] kept it because it makes them look good, but diminishing the time sends a very strong message that it can't be that important."

This year, Dumont taught grade one at Strathcona Elementary. As the school's 'safe contact' -- a school representation to support queer families and students, who is also familiar with classroom resources -- she organized and attended a teacher training session with Mulligan.

Mulligan shows teachers how to create safer and more inclusive learning environments, says Dumont. He also provides key support resources and teaching plans, enabling teachers to think about the language they use and assumptions they have about queer issues.

Last Monday, Vancouver's West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert called for the B.C. government to enhance protection and services for LGBT communities, drafting a five-point plan that includes clear anti-homophobia policies in all B.C. school districts.

His plan followed the release of a Statscan report, which showed reports of 143 hate crimes in Vancouver in 2008, almost double the total from the previous year. While just sixteen per cent of reported hate crimes were related to sexual orientation, those crimes were the most violent.

"I'd rather we have the education up front, and then we won't see the attacks later," said Chandra Herbert. "We can talk about ensuring that there's hate crime designation, enough cops on the street, but ultimately we want to be ensuring prevention. That should be the utmost of any kind of crime-fighting plan."

He added that some school districts lack anti-homophobia consultants, and that some districts may not have anti-homophobia policies at all. As for those with consultants, he says it's still "hit and miss", because it largely depends on whether a teacher should decide they want to use the resource or not.

"It's important to have an option for kids to be able to ask those questions," said Chandra Herbert. "So much of it is lack of information."

Robyn Smith is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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