One year after 17-year-old Jomar Lamot was beaten to death on a Friday evening outside of Sir Charles Tupper Secondary School in Vancouver, what is being done to make schools more safe in British Columbia?
The director of a new Institute for Safe Schools, Dr. Martha Dow, sees many school boards investing in the hardware of enforcement such as sniffer dogs, video surveillance equipment, and metal detectors. And Lamot's apparently racially motivated killing has spurred anti-racism initiatives that are helping to curb intolerance, which Dow applauds.
But Dow also thinks the education establishment needs pay far more attention to the plight of an often brutalized, but invisible minority: gay and lesbian students. On such politically charged safety issues -- such as confronting homophobia -- many boards are silent at best, she says.
"There's a great deal more permission around homophobia than there is around racism. That's not to say, obviously, that we don't have racism," she says. "But there's a different societal permission, cultural permission, to engage in homophobic remarks."
From the institute's offices at the University College of the Fraser Valley (UCFV) in Abbotsford, Dow is passionate about creating schools that are safe for everyone. "When I'm talking about safety, I'm talking about connectedness, a sense of belonging."
Preventing violence, Dow says, requires education as well as "community participation" and a focus on "citizenship." Interviews with teachers, students and experts reveal that homophobic slurs are everyday occurrences in the halls of most B.C. high schools.
Maureen Rieder, a teacher at Vancouver's David Thompson secondary school, hears "lots of homophobic remarks, like 'that's so gay.' And it's not meant kindly, but as 'dumb, stupid.' It's a total put-down." Homophobia is so prevalent that people have forgotten how hurtful it is, she says.
Alison Benjamin graduated from high school in North Vancouver two years ago. Having lots of friends, and a gay teacher who created a safe place for GLBT students helped buffer her from homophobia, but nevertheless, "people in class would say things like that's so gay all the time," she says. "Just the presence of that in the classrooms and the hallways showed that maybe some teachers were complicit."
Dr. Mark Gilbert has studied the impact of school environments on gay youth. "The expression like 'that's so gay,' or teenage boys calling each other a fag, that's certainly more common and prevalent," he said. "There have been some suicides linked to episodes of gay bashing or gay harassment, which is tragic."
Gays at risk
Gilbert's study, "The Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Two-spirited and Questioning Youth in British Columbia and the Influence of the School Environment," was written while he was a resident in UBC's Community Medicine Residency Program. He found plenty of evidence that school environments can be toxic for gay students. These youth miss more days of school, engage in more high-risk behaviours, as well as have higher rates of mental illness, emotional distress, and suicide.
It's hard to accurately pinpoint the number of gay students in the province. A 2003 study by the McCreary Centre Society found about 8,000 B.C. students described their sexual orientation as bisexual, completely homosexual, or mostly homosexual.
These numbers, however, are probably low, Gilbert says, because students who identify themselves as gay "are ones who have overcome that negative image—or at least to some degree—so they can actually identify with the label of being gay." Indeed, an American study found over half the students having a sexual relationship with someone a same-sex partner, still labeled themselves as straight.
Both straight and gay students are targets of homophobic taunts, however. Gilbert says American studies show that up to 80 per cent of students subjected to homophobic harassment are not gay. Dow believes that homophobic epithets are tossed around so readily in schools "because that's the thing that's most salient. That's what's happening in the hallway, that they hear most often, they hear 'faggot,' and for them that's a place where their identity gets attacked—gay or not."
Some schools have established Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA) to help students deal with questions of sexuality. Gilbert's study cites research showing that GSAs can help gay student improve their academic performance, increase their sense of belonging to school, and improve their perception of safety. In addition GSAs can also have positive effects on the culture of the entire school, simply by giving breathing space to an issue that is often cloaked in silence.
At UBC, where she's now a student, Alison Benjamin reflects on the lack of frank discussions about sexuality at her high school. "In sex education, we didn't get told about same sex relationships," she says. "It's pretty hetero-normative in everything, so I think that has a potential to make students feel alienated if they are sort of 'different.'"
Teya Greenberg, a community development worker with Kinex Youth Initiative, says that schools are often not a safe place for gay youth, but "it's not the school system's fault, but part of the hetero-normative system. Anything that's not straight isn't normal."
However, Greenberg is working to change this mind-set. She helped organize the Vancouver School Board's (VSB) second annual "Building Queer Friendly Schools" conference, which brought together staff and students to figure out how to address homophobia and heterosexism wherever they are found in schools.
Lesbian mother of three
Dow praises the efforts undertaken by the VSB, and is enthusiastic about its action plan.
In February this year, the board passed a policy ACB: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual, Two-Spirit, Questioning. This pledges to provide "a safe environment, free from harassment and discrimination, while also promoting proactive strategies and guidelines to ensure that lesbian, gay, transgender, transsexual, two-spirit, bisexual and questioning students, employees and families are welcomed and included in all aspects of education and school life and treated with respect and dignity."
The VSB's action plan includes professional development for staff, anti-homophobia workshops for parents, a student-written code of conduct, and buying "queer positive resources for schools." Resources in Vancouver schools are now mandated to help "all lesbian, gay, transgender, transsexual, two-spirit, bisexual and questioning students to see themselves and their lives positively reflected in the curriculum."
The problem, however, is that too few students see their experience in school curriculum, according to Dow. And that absence can be harmful to gay students, or students with same-sex parents.
Dow speaks from both a professional and personal perspective. "I'm a lesbian and we have three little children—a six year old and twin four year olds. But we've had quite the conversations with the district," she says. "Our claim has always been that our daughter has a right to see herself reflected. She has a right not to feel marginalized and oppressed so early." But because marginalized and oppressed is exactly how her daughter felt last year in kindergarten, she's now being home-schooled.
"We've got kindergarten teachers who don't want to read a book that says on one page, 'some families have two mums, and some families have two dads.' It took four months for our kindergarten teacher to finally read that book, and I had to be in the class to basically make that happen," she says, clearly incredulous.
Seeking provincial support
The Ministry of Education agrees with Dow that homophobia has no place in schools. Its Safe Caring and Orderly Schools: A guide says: "People associated with safe, caring and orderly schools assume responsibility, in partnership with the wider community, for resolving critical safety concerns. They work together to better understand issues such as bullying, intimidation and harassment, racism, sexism and homophobia, and to learn new skills to respond to them."
Despite a common vision of school safety, the Institute for Safe Schools receives no funding from the Ministry of Education. Instead, core funding comes from the Ministry of Public Safety and the Solicitor General, while the RCMP supplies one its officers the institute. Partnerships with school districts and collaboration with UCFV, where Dow is a professor, provide other research dollars.
Dow, however, remains hopeful that the Ministry will come on board to support the work of the institute. "It's obvious that an institute for safe schools without a meaningful partnership with the Ministry of Education is not great."
Judith Ince is a staff writer for The Tyee with a special focus on education.