Black Press contributor
The Board of Education for the Greater Victoria School District has approved the district’s first gender identity and expression policy.
According to board chair, Edith Loring-Kuhanga, the policy was introduced to ensure the support and protection of all students and staff within the school community by outlining the expectations, behaviours, language and actions required to prevent the marginalization or discrimination against any students regardless of sexuality or sexual identification.
“We have an important responsibility to ensure all of our students are safe and supported,” said Loring-Kuhanga.
It’s a responsibility that Shane Wagner feels on a deeply personal level.
Wagner is the chair of Oak Bay High School’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) and assisted in crafting the policy.
“There are still students who don’t feel safe or accepted in their school, or for that matter in the community in general,” said Wagner, adding it’s not unusual to be met with passive discrimination and prejudice in the community and in school.
“This policy is actually a very big move forward, opening more doors for us to create a safe place for LGBT students and helping to create a better understanding of some of the challenges we face on a day to day basis.”
“A lot of people just don’t understand. Hopefully this will help to address that.”
Piet Langstraat, District 61 Superintendent, explained the policy has been under consideration for some time and is simply in-keeping with the core values of the school division values that call for every student and staff member to be treated with dignity and respect and to be able to learn and work in a safe, supportive environment.
School trustee Jordan Watters helped spearhead the development of the policy, and feels the specific gender and sexuality policy was needed despite the existing policies regarding bullying and discrimination.
“What this move accomplishes is to anticipate the needs of our transgender students (and other students in the LGBT community) so that they don’t have to fight the same battles over and over, every time they change schools or classrooms. Everyone tends to concentrate on things like bathrooms and sports teams, but the policy isn’t even mostly about those things. It’s about creating awareness and fostering accepting attitudes,” said Watters.
“In this way we’re not waiting for a problem and then reacting, we’re working to educate staff and students so the problems don’t arise at all,” she said, adding that everyone is starting at a different place on the issue. While some staff and students are already there, others have a bit of a learning curve ahead of them.
While the expression of the sentiment and the changing of attitudes arising from the new policy are vitally important, Langstraat noted specific actions arising from the policy will make an immediate difference.
All schools will be required to include a respect for gender identity within their codes of conduct and every school will have at least one adult who acts as a resource for transgender and gender non-conforming and sexual minority students. In addition, training will take place for counsellors and staff and resource materials will be made available to school libraries and classrooms.
Other parts of the policy’s implementation will include the facilitation of clubs within schools for sexual minority students and the assurance that sex segregated activities (such as sport teams and physical education classes) allow participation according to how students gender-identify.
“The wonderful thing about this policy is how the students helped to make it happen,” said Watters.
“It made what we came up with so much more relevant and it provided those students with an education in civics that they’ll be able to use as they move forward in life.”
Both Watters and Langstraat report no negative feedback from parents or the general public as a result of the policy, which hasn’t been the case everywhere when policies of this kind have been introduced.
“In some municipalities the reaction was one of fear mongering and prejudice,” said Watters. “The positive reaction here in Victoria really makes me proud of our community and it gives me hope that attitudes are changing for the better.”