What will it take to effectively prevent and end bullying? Tucker Barton of Trinity College School contemplates whether Bill 13, the “Accepting Schools Act,” will make a difference in fostering inclusivity and diversity in schools.
Bill 13—oh come on. . . .
On June 5, the Ontario government passed into law Bill 13, the “Accepting Schools Act,” despite the political, media and community furor about whether it went too far, or not far enough.
What Everyone Wants: Safe Schools
Find me a parent out there who doesn’t want their child’s school to be a safe place where learning can take place free of oppression. If you read Bill 13 there’s nothing new here. Well, there is one thing. We’ll get to that in a minute. School boards, administrators, teachers and parents have been working, occasionally to the point of exhaustion, to do everything in their power to ensure that the school experience is a positive one for each and every student. Do we need to put the details of all that in writing, if it is what everyone wants? Apparently we do, so that must mean someone out there is dropping the ball.
The Real Issue With Bill 13
Six months ago the Catholic school board decided that students would not be allowed to form Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs). The rhetoric at the time spoke to the worry that they would be “activist” organizations, or that they didn’t “allow Nazi groups either.” In doing research recently for an article on providing services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth in independent schools, one of the things I discovered was that it’s actually a directive of the Ministry of Education in Ontario that you have to provide representations of, and services for all youth, including LGBTQ youth in Ontario schools. So then, I found myself asking, how is it then that Catholic schools say that they won’t? I asked a lot of people in my life including clergy and Catholics, and no one could explain to me how Catholic schools can get away with this, if it clearly violates a provincial education statute and they’re getting provincial funding? The only answer I was given was that no one had yet challenged it in the courts.
A Difficult Decision
So it happens that my child, who is of a two-mom family, is at a Catholic school, a decision that has been very difficult for my family. We love the school, the staff and the community, but we were told when we asked about enrolment that there would be no positive representation of his family make-up in the classroom environment—the principal’s hands were tied. Therefore we decided that he would stay there for his primary years, but as he grew more aware, we would have to move him. About a month ago though, he came home with a notice saying that Friday would be “Pink Shirt” day. I laughed out loud. I told people and they laughed too. Of course the school was taking a stand against bullying. Good on them! But clearly, they had missed the lesson on where the pink shirt concept came from. A child at a school in Nova Scotia was bullied for wearing a pink shirt because of societal assumptions about boys who wear pink shirts. Surely if there had been a GSA doing active work at that school, the odds that “pink shirt-related bullying” would have been going on would have been significantly less.
That’s why we need this bill. Yes, the policies of the Ministry of Education are clear but have been ignored for far too long. Looks to me like this is the government taking action on something before an individual has to go to the expense of putting forth this court challenge—in my mind, that’s good governance. In all of this rhetoric, what’s being lost is that GSAs are not primarily about combatting bullying but, ideally, their independent mandate is designed by the students involved, on a school by school basis. Often what those students require is simply a safe space where they can discuss issues that are affecting their lives. A first step often for these students is naming the club for what it is, a step toward knowing that all of the members of their school community are okay saying “Gay” out loud, in a positive way. That’s how we get rid of bullying.
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Do you think Bill 13, the ”Accepting Schools Act,” will make a difference in combatting bullying and fostering diversity in schools? What will be effective in fighting intolerance? Share your thoughts in Comments section below.