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Premier Clark Confronts School Bullies

New BC-wide anti-bully strategy vague, avoids homophobia, say critics. But it has potential.

By Katie Hyslop, 2 Jun 2012, TheTyee.ca

Lurking bully

$2-million strategy includes teachers training and stronger codes of conduct. Photo via Shutterstock.

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Premier Christy Clark passed a milestone in her professional and personal life yesterday with the announcement of a new provincial anti-bullying strategy for British Columbian schools.

A former minister of education and radio personality, Clark is credited with bringing the Pink Shirt Day anti-bullying campaign to the province, and has made the topic one of her pet projects. Now, as she told a room full of students, educators, police and media in the Surrey YMCA on Friday, the government is ready to tackle bullying in schools head on.

"Today I'm proud to announce ERASE Bullying. It's a 10-point strategy to make sure that every child in school feels safe and protected, to make sure that every child who's bullied will know that there's somebody that's going to stand by them and step in and try and stop it," she said.

The BC Teachers' Federation (BCTF) welcomes the plan, saying it's something the union has been asking the province to create for some time.

"We've been calling for a strong provincial strategy for a while now because on the ground there's been inconsistent and inadequate responses to serious situations," says Jim Iker, first vice-president of the BCTF.

However at least one anti-homophobia activist in the province says this 10-step plan won't do anything to protect lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender/transsexual, and queer/questioning (LBGTQ) youth. After waiting for years for a new plan to attack homophobia in schools, anti-homophobia activist Ryan Clayton says ERASE recycles old promises from Clark and the Liberal government.

Creating positive school culture

The 10-steps of ERASE, which stands for Expect Respect And a Safe Education, include plans for a five-year education strategy for educators and community partners to identify and deal with different kinds of bullying: a smart phone app for students to anonymously report bullying; dedicated safety coordinators for each school district; stronger codes of conduct; and a provincial advisory board composed of educators, police and social agencies to counsel government on bullying issues.

"We will be the first province to provide consistent training, policies and protocols across every school district," Clark says.

Beginning this fall, the $2-million strategy will build on the legislation of the Safe Schools Act introduced in 2006, which required districts to implement codes of conduct to prevent bullying in schools.

Clark says she isn't introducing new legislation because she's learned over the years that bullying is not something you can outlaw.

"What educators need are the tools to be able to deal with conflicts in an appropriate way, and the tools to recognize that bullying is happening, and administrators need to know that creating a positive school culture is a priority as part of their jobs everyday," she said.

When asked if anti-homophobia groups like the Pride Education Network or Out in Schools would be included as members of the government's provincial anti-bullying task force, Clark said she welcomed their input. She added LBGTQ youth face increased risk of bullying and suicide because of their sexual orientation, and that won't be tolerated in the province's schools.

"Bullying is bullying and shouldn't happen to any child for any reason, including kids who are gay, lesbian, bisexual transgendered, and we do know that those kids are more likely to be bullied, they are more likely to commit suicide than other kids in schools," says Clark.

A 2009 study by EGALE Canada found almost 60 per cent of LBGTQ students faced bullying and harassment at school, compared to seven per cent of non-LBGTQ students. They are also seven times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers.

Not about homophobia: Clayton

Just under one-third of B.C.'s 60 school districts have passed sexual orientation policies protecting LBGTQ youth specifically from harassment and bullying. Over 60 organizations in British Columbia, including the BCTF, West Coast LEAF and the Representative for Children and Youth BC have asked government to introduce a province-wide sexual orientation and gender policy to protect the province's students.

But Clayton says ERASE is not the answer to their prayers.

"If (Clark)'s introducing something to do with homophobia, this isn't it," Clayton told The Tyee, adding Clark has made several promises in the past to eliminate anti-LBGTQ bullying.

Earlier this year she promised NDP MLA Chandra Herbert an LBGTQ policy before the legislature shut its doors for the summer, which they did two days ago without introducing any LBGTQ policies.

Yesterday's announcement was fairly vague, however, which could mean a sexual orientation policy could come out of ERASE.

"Until some of these things are flushed out, I don't know if she's going to make true on that (promise) within anything in this plan," says Clayton, the organizer behind last year's Purple Letters campaign that sent letters to Clark detailing people's experiences with homophobia and transphobia in B.C.

He concedes other elements of ERASE are great, but they've been done before. For example, the BCTF already provides Safe School's contacts in schools across B.C., and stronger school codes of conduct were called for by Clark in 2003.

"If you're taking control of it that's one thing, but you're not inventing it," he says.

It's in the details: Iker

The BCTF's Iker is less critical of ERASE, however, saying he won't know how effective the strategy will be without details.

"It's always in the details. They make an announcement today, and we'll see how this actually plays out in reality and whether they're going to put more funding into this and make it more real in our schools."

Both he and Clark agree teachers are concerned about bullying their students face, and he welcomes the professional development promise in ERASE that mandates one day of anti-bullying training per year. But he says teachers need more than training -- they need adequate education funding to meet the needs of vulnerable, bullied students.

"We know that in the past decade there's been many cuts to our learning specialists such as teacher counsellors, learning assistance teachers, special education teachers, and these are the teachers that deal with our youth, especially teacher counsellors," he says, adding the province's schools are facing a $100-million funding shortfall in 2012-13.

"They're the people that actually give support to our vulnerable students who are coping with a bullying situation."

Regardless of his opinion on the content of ERASE, Clayton says he would love to provide counsel to government on LBGTQ bullying through the provincial advisory board. Or he could recommend other organizations involved with homophobia in schools.

But he hopes whomever they pick to advise government, it isn't just because they're gay.

"If they put someone on who went to school in the '80s, they're not going to know what the situation is right now unless they work in the schools," he says.

"It's one thing to put a gay person on there. It's another thing to put someone on who's active in the schools and knows something about it."

Whatever government decides to do regarding homophobia in schools, Clayton hopes they do it soon.

"We're talking about lives, we're not talking about making people happy, and the faster they get to it -- within reason of doing it right -- the better."  [Tyee]

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