Monday, December 19, 2011

Not pretending GSAs are panaceas

The introduction of Bill 13 by the government last month (along with the introduction of Bill 14 by PCPO education critic Elizabeth Witmer) has led to weeks of continuing discussion, angry opposition and name-calling by all those who have a stake in trying to reduce bullying in schools.
The contentious clause in Bill 13 reads:
303.1  Every board shall support pupils who want to establish and lead,
  (a)  activities or organizations that promote gender equity;
  (b)  activities or organizations that promote anti-racism;
   (c)  activities or organizations that promote the awareness and understanding of, and respect for, people with disabilities; or
  (d)  activities or organizations that promote the awareness and understanding of, and respect for, people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, including organizations with the name gay-straight alliance or another name.
The 303.1(d) is the clause that people have either manned the gates to defend (often over-interpreting it to mean every school must support the creation of create gay-straight alliances) or storm the gates to destroy by making the same interpretation. Which of course, has led media coverage on this, some examples:
And all the big players chipped in as well. I was particularly impressed by the night-after-night coverage given by CBC Radio's As it Happens, which had the opposition on one night, Minister Laurel Broten on the next, a student who pushed for a GSA at her Catholic school and then the subsequent response from the president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association.
All the coverage that I've seen neglects to mention the related Policy and Program Memoranda 144 from 2009, upon which Bill 13 adds a legislative and regulatory framework.
So what can we determine from all this?
  • LGBTQ kids get bullied in school due to their differences from a perception of what 'normal' should be.
  • Lots of other kids get bullied in school regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, fashion sense, etc. for the same reasons.
  • Lots of bullying happens at school because that's where kids spend most of their day.
  • Schools reflect our culture in how well or poorly they've responded to bullying.
I've never believed that GSAs (or whatever the hell you end up calling them) are a panacea because they're not. They can be instrumental in helping build a culture within a school community that's more accepting of all students regardless of sexual or gender orientation, but we shouldn't be so naive as to believe that the mere presence of those three words to a club in a school fixes all bullying. It doesn't and it won't.
Does that mean they shouldn't be part of Bill 13?
The Liberal government has hit the right tone with Sec. 9 of this bill, which amends Sec. 303 of the Education Act. It allows students to decide what sorts of student groups they'd like to have in their own schools. It (deftly?) allows the innate conflict of funding a faith-based school system that is outright against promoting any sexual/gender behaviour that doesn't lead to procreation (and, of course, even then not until you're duly married) and the requirement to accept all students to continue. As I've written in the past, until we get a government that wants to tackle the Catholic board question, we should stop being surprised when Catholic schools behave in a manner consistent with the tenets of their faith.
My worry? In our preoccupation over whether or not some kid at a Catholic school can name their club a gay-straight alliance, we're taking our eye off the ball. We're becoming obsessed with three words that in and of themselves don't do that much to change our culture-- one built upon bullying in so many different layers. The people in that club, whatever it's actually called, are the ones that will act to change others' behaviour. That can happen regardless of the name of the club -- heck, it can happen regardless of whether there is a club to begin with.


elementaryteacher said...

I think you are letting school personnel off the hook far too easily. Yes, student-organized groups to promote equity can be a force for good (under whatever name), but the adults in the school have a big influence on school climate and ambience.Some years back - about 15 years – racism was a huge issue in many elementary schools(perhaps especially in diverse ones). Unfortunately, racism and related behaviours are common to the human condition. No way to really change that, just keep it in check, right?

Wrong. The board (via the MOE)came down very hard on it, seemingly out of the blue. Racial stereotyping, name-calling, vulgar epithets, even mild race-based physical confrontations were treated as serious matters. Teachers were required to enforce a strict no-racist-language code. I admit I rather rolled my eyes and thought, Yeah right. Like that will help.

I was wrong. It DID work. The change was gradual, over a number of years, but I noticed the general tone of student interaction improved dramatically. Racial slurs were almost never heard, friendship groups crossed race and ethnicity lines easily and naturally, fights or name-calling still took place but were not race-based. Even some very tough middle schools I worked in showed this change of ethos.

It spread to staff as well. Not that we were especially prone to racist remarks, but mentally cataloging students by race & other personal characteristics was probably not unusual.

A couple years ago, at a very culturally/racially/linguistically mixed school a fellow teacher was trying to tell me about a new student he was excited about. Since I did lunch supervision in the class, I was sure I knew the student if only the teacher could describe him. The name was a very common one – no help. The teacher and I went back and forth with multiple personal qualities: haircut,what clothes he wore, friends he hung out with, favourite sport, where he sat – still I wasn’t sure which boy was meant. Finally the teacher said, “He has huge blue eyes.” I paused. “Blue eyes?” I queried. “Is this a white kid?”

Well, yes. If this had been the first (of 6-8) descriptor given, I would have recognized the kid immediately, as white kids with big blue eyes were rare in our student population. What struck me as remarkable here is that neither the teacher nor I thought of race as a salient characteristic of the student. It didn’t occur to either of us until practically nothing else was left. That is a significant change.

We need to take a similar stand on gender-based issues, including “innocent” student slang expressions like, “That’s so gay,” which is always meant as an insult. We don’t let students use the N-word or other ethnic slurs; we do not need to allow them to go unchallenged with gender-based ones either. We can interrupt and let them know that such language is unacceptable-period. What we condone, we tacitly encourage.

I have another reason for feeling strongly about this. It didn’t make the papers, but one of our Gr. 7 students took his own life, tragically, several years ago. Unlike the Ottawa case, this boy--a star student, top athlete and gifted musician – was not bullied. But clearly he felt that should he reveal who he felt he was, he would be rejected by family, friends, faith community and school personnel. I learned that a high percentage of students who self-identify as gay, bisexual or transgendered attempt suicide. School should be a place where they are safe to be themselves. Staff can and must do more to create a welcoming environment, which doesn’t mean endorsing any kind of sexuality but rather providing for students to discuss their challenges in privacy if they wish, and with respect in any case.

As for the catholicity involved, one need only look to Jesus' admonitions on suspending judgement, casting no stones, and protecting the vulnerable to see that to err on the side of consideration and caring can hardly be un-Catholic.

Anonymous said...

Does this affect private schools or not??!!!

Debora said...

I would agree with elementary teacher. My kids get bullied at school and things have gotten a lot better due a number of factors, and the biggest one? The example of the adults that work in the school itself, separating the age groups and tackling issues of racism the minute they start.

As for kids who aren't straight, there are too many organizations who work with teens who run away from their families because they have been rejected. The issues these kids face are real, and ANY child who is a non-conformist gets called out and bullied by their peers. If you are a conformist, but aren't straight, to suddenly realize you don't fit the stereotype has got to be hard. (Watch the Butch Factor). But to expect a religious school to accept these things when it's not in the parameters of their religion is out of the question. There is no real reason why faith based schools couldn't be abolished.

Education Reporter said...

Elementary teacher:
My reply is a bit delayed, apologies.
I don't feel I've spared anyone involved in the culture of harassment we call bullying. Which is why I refer to the change needing to be a cultural one.
Your example about racist language and culture is a perfect example of what needs to happen if the culture around harassment will ever change in our society as a whole, including our schools.

Where I get prickly at times is when this harassment happens and then everyone rushes to point the finger at the school system alone. Did we do that with racism? Blame the school every time someone said something or did something in response to that intolerant behaviour? That's what happens with this harassment though.

A caring adult(s) is a vital part of healthy childhood development. If those adults (at home, at school, elsewhere) model the behaviours that we want to see as a society and quickly correct the behaviours they witness that we don't want, change will happen. If that requires a stick instead of a carrot to get the adults to realize that, then so be it.

However, fighting over GSAs doesn't, by itself, change the culture of harassment we're saying needs to be fixed.


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