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School Board Considers Sweeping Rights Policy

Proposal's wording goes a little too far from some trustees

[OWEN SOUND, ONTARIO] - A "courageous" new human rights policy for Bluewater schools is expected to spark lively debate in staff rooms and at
parent council sessions.

Considered unique in Ontario, the proposed policy and procedure for the first time clearly defines and discourages discrimination and harassment against gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender teachers,
students or anyone else within the Bluewater public school system.

That's just one aspect of the sweeping document a board task force took 18 months to draft. It also defines harassment and
discrimination on the basis of race, disability, socio-economic status and physical appearance, among other things, and not only entitles but encourages victims to complain through a clear procedure.

But it is the section on heterosexism and harassment based on sexual orientation that will likely get the most attention ? and that discussion is long overdue, several board officials said.

"Yes there will be concern and controversy and I say, bring it on. Let's get into it," education director David Armstrong said at the policy session. "I welcome the dialogue."

The policy did not come out of any issues in local schools, but was developed in consultation with several gay and lesbian Bluewater teachers.

The document was already in process last spring when a gay student at a Catholic high school fought in court for the right to bring his boyfriend to the school prom, making headlines for several days.

"That certainly didn't trigger it," Cynthia Lemon, the local president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario and one of
seven task force members, said in an interview.

Under the proposed policy, a gay student could not be denied the right to bring a same-sex partner to the prom and would not have to fight the issue in court.

"That's my understanding," Mary Anne Alton, Bluewater's elementary superintendent and a task force member, said in an interview after she and Lemon presented the document to the policy committee.

It makes clear what is unacceptable behaviour in Bluewater schools.

"I think it will raise a lot of issues in the community where there are strong feelings," Alton said. "I think it will raise the sensitivity around these issues, even the language that people use on the playground, or names that they call one another or using gay-lesbian terms as put downs to other students.

"All those kinds of things, suddenly we're talking about that. It's not just a comment. It's hurting somebody potentially. I guess the next step will be having more opportunity in the school program to actually discuss these issues with students as part of their curriculum."

Lemon said the policy and related discussions should help encourage tolerance and understanding and will help shape how people think and behave, curbing off-colour remarks and inappropriate staff room jokes
or comments.

"I don't want it sitting in a binder on a shelf, because then there's been no reason to spend all that time on it," she said.

"Even if we can reach a point where people are thinking about what they say before they say it, then we've made progress. We tend to
blurt things out without considering that some people might find them offensive, or insulting or hurtful."

Trustees welcomed policy BP 7520-D but tripped over some of the new language including the word heterosexism. It's defined in the document as "the assumption that everyone is heterosexual and the belief in the inherent normality and superiority of heterosexuality."

Heterosexism would be harassment under the policy, which troubled several trustees.

Trustee Cindy Aitken said the word seemed to be "an extra little dig," neither necessary nor useful to the policy's aims.

"It's a fabulous, fabulous policy," Aitken said. "But everyone has the right to their assumptions. We don't have the right to say what people should believe, but we do have the right to tell people how they need to behave in our schools."

Other trustees also objected to the word, calling it jargonistic and confusing.

"If I have trouble with that word, then I think everyone else will," Owen Sound trustee Marg Gaviller said. "I have no problem with the concept, it's just the word."

Admitting he was "fishing for trouble," board chair Ron Motz said heterosexuality "is the norm" but agreed it can't be regarded as superior or preferred. "I don't know who coined the word, but maybe they should be shot right now."

Lemon told trustees, and said again after the meeting, that using and defining the word heterosexism is vital in the policy, which is also meant as an educational tool.

"It more clearly delineates homophobia," she said. "It's the same as racism, assuming one race is superior."

"I think it's quite courageous to have it in there," Alton told trustees.

"We all really want this policy to work and we don't want the word to divert the principle," said trustee Carolyn Day, who chairs the policy committee.

The policy is the result of a task force formed last April after a groundbreaking training session for principals and union stewards prompted by the local EFTO human rights committee.

That session looked at legal issues around gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teachers in schools, Alton said.

Several gay and lesbian teachers at the session talked about their experience in Bluewater schools and issues they've faced in the community.

"Every staff member in Bluewater who is gay or lesbian has not had an easy ride because the school system clearly reflects society, so this is a whole issue of raising awareness," Alton said. "I think those people were very courageous to share their stories with principals and colleagues. It's really opened a dialogue."

The new policy combines the board's existing policies on sexual harassment, workplace harassment and discrimination and employment
equity with new policy and procedure which brings all the related issues under one document.

"It's unique," Lemon said, adding the policy will require people to shift their thinking and some may be uncomfortable with it.

"Sometimes we avoid the discussions we should be having and we should be having these ones."

The draft policy goes now to secondary and elementary principals and will be circulated in January and February to school parent councils for comment before final approval at the March policy committee meeting.

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