Public board passes gender policy

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Initiative could save student lives, says former teacher

St. Albert Public Schools trustees lived up to Lois Hole’s legacy this week, says a prominent human rights advocate, by banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Public board trustees voted 4-1 in favour of the board’s new standalone sexual orientation and gender identity policy Wednesday.

First commissioned in April, the policy states that the board “will not tolerate harassment, bullying, intimidation, or discrimination on the basis of a person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression,” and expects all members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community to be respected, accepted and supported in every school.

It also commits the board to supporting schools in creating educational initiatives and environments that respect the unique identities of sexual minorities.

The board wanted to send a clear message that sexual minority students are to be treated equally and provided with a safe learning environment, said chair Joan Trettler.

“The board feels strongly that this is an area we need to address in our schools,” she said.

This policy will give students the support they need to speak up for their rights, she added.

St. Albert should take great pride in the board’s actions, said Kristopher Wells, a city resident and associate director of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta, who witnessed the vote.

“I actually thought as a student and a teacher that I’d never see this day in St. Albert,” Wells said.

Wells is a well-known gay rights advocate who stepped down as a teacher in St. Albert because he could not keep his job if he was openly gay.

St. Albert Public is the second school board in Alberta after Edmonton Public to implement a standalone sexual orientation policy, Wells said.

“It’s paving the way for other boards to follow.”

He praised the board for living up to the progressive legacy of former board chair and lieutenant governor Lois Hole.

Sexual and gender minority students are often marginalized and bullied in schools, Wells said, and research suggests these students are at greater risk for drug use and sexual assault as a result.

“These youths are two to three times more likely to take their own lives” compared to others, Wells said. “If this policy saves even one life, it’s certainly worth it.”

Elevated dropout and suicide rates amongst sexual minority students showed the board that this group needed special attention, said trustee Cheryl Dumont, who led the push for the standalone policy along with trustee Joe Demko.

“We care for all of our students, but this is a group that is more vulnerable than others,” Dumont said.

This policy is all about how we as people treat each other, Demko said.

“Whether you are gay or lesbian isn’t the issue. The issue is that you don’t talk to people and treat them in a disrespectful manner,” he said.

The new policy follows recent changes to the board’s student code of conduct and discrimination policies that ban discrimination against sexual minorities.

Trettler, who opposed the standalone policy when it was first introduced, said she changed her mind because those other policies were modified – the standalone policy states the board’s beliefs, while those other rules enforce those beliefs.

Trustee Gerry Martins, who opposed the policy Wednesday and when it was first introduced, maintained that the general ban on discrimination against a number of groups, including sexual minorities, in the board’s discrimination policy is protection enough.

“We are all created equal in God’s eyes,” he said, adding that this standalone policy makes one group more special than the rest.

A standalone policy provides the clear policy direction needed to address discrimination against sexual minorities that you don’t get with general bans, Wells said. “It opens up a conversational space to talk about these issues.”

The standalone policy also goes into more detail than the discrimination policy, specifying that sexual minority persons have the right to self-identification and the same services as heterosexuals, and that these rights extend to all students, staff, and families in the district.

Wells said he hopes this policy will spark a broader debate about sexual minorities, as there are many same-sex families in town.

“We need to do a better job to ensure they feel valued and included as citizens of St. Albert.”

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.