Claremont secondary school’s Gay-Straight Alliance members Jay (last name withheld)

Safe at school: Saanich school district takes action against bullying

High school’s gay-straight alliance looks to educate, promote acceptance, and reduce harassment, isolation and depression

The students occupying the choir room during lunch hour at Claremont secondary discuss last week’s episode of Glee. But the conversation doesn’t touch on the song selection, or an impending wedding between the two main characters.

Instead, the talk among members of the Saanich school’s Gay-Straight Alliance centres around the resonant plot about an openly gay character’s suicide attempt following an onslaught of homophobic bullying.

“I cried – it was so moving,” one student says about the scene.

“It was really, really powerful,” adds Tara Gordon-Cooper, teacher sponsor for the newfound group.

The alliance was borne out of a long-overdue need to change the status quo on oft-downplayed issues.

“The adults in this building know that there is, statistically, a good chunk of kids who must not identify as heterosexual. The fact that some of them must be hiding, or are ashamed or afraid – as an adult who wants to create a safe place for them to be – that doesn’t feel right,” Gordon-Cooper says.

Jay, who requested her last name not be used, is a Grade 12 student who says the alliance has created a safe place for her to go during school hours.

“As a queer-identified person, it’s easy to feel like you’re the only one of your kind in a school this size,” she says. “(Being in the alliance is) one of the places in the school where I can truly be who I am.”

The student says her family is “not as accepting” of her identity as she’d like them to be, and she feels like she can’t be herself at home.

“I think the reason it’s easy to be open (at school) is it’s a generational thing. We’re being exposed to a variety of gender orientations (through social media) and we have a lot more opportunities to get to know all sorts of people,” Jay says.

There are currently 18 students actively participating in the group.

Today (Wednesday, Feb. 29) marks Pink Shirt Day in Canada – a day to recognize the importance of the anti-bullying message.

Pride Alliance members made tie-dye pink T-shirts and plastered the school with posters encouraging their classmates to wear pink to protest bullying.

“It’ll be, in essence, our coming out party to the school,” Gordon-Cooper says about the student group, which is only a couple months old.

But the student members – 13 females and five males – are more than optimistic that their messaging will permeate the hallways, and have a positive impact on both their school and school district.

Members of the alliance met with Saanich superintendent Keven Elder last week to discuss creating a districtwide Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity policy, as none currently exists.

In 2007, the board looked at creating a similar policy, but felt the existing Human Rights and Discrimination policy was enough. There was also concern change could bring attention to negative “social behaviours” like bullying and anti-homophobic comments.

“By remaining neutral or silent, they do no good,” Jay says, adding that teachers also need to be educated.

Saanich’s superintendent agrees that the topic shouldn’t be left to fester.

“The issue has not presented itself overtly in Saanich, but bias and disrespect continue to be evident across B.C. as is unfortunately the case in many parts of the world,” Elder wrote last month in a recommendation to the district’s policy committee. “While this is primarily a ‘quiet epidemic’, where ignorance and negativity are perpetrated out of sight of adults, it can surface in self-destructive attitudes and behaviours of the victims, up to and including suicide.”

Ongoing discussions with students from all Saanich high schools, as well as parents and staff, have been positive, Elder says. Everyone supports the idea of creating a policy that ensures safety and understanding for all.

“These students are brilliantly insightful,” he says “One thing we know that will happen as things flow from the creation of the policy is that everyone – students, staff, parents – will be highly attuned to how extremely inappropriate it is to use hate slang or homophobic taunting or language, which is distressing in schools and in society.”

Elder hopes to have a formal policy in place in the district by June.

Alliance member Geena Ross says ongoing attempts to remove bullying from the school hallways will be a positive legacy that she hopes will continue for years to come.

“This is something that’s bigger than me. I’m proud of the fact that I feel like I’m doing something good here,” the Grade 12 student says.

For teacher Gordon-Cooper, the best success the Gay-Straight Alliance could have would be if it was no longer required.

“Our hope is that eventually we will outlive our need. Our ultimate goal is that this fizzles out and dies and is totally unnecessary,” she says.

For now, however, she reiterates the message from last week’s Glee as a reason why a group like the Gay-Straight Alliance is needed.

“We’ve had enough suicides. We’ve had enough depression. We’ve had enough kids drop out of school,” she tells the group members. “We just don’t want a single student to be hurt, or possibly die, because we didn’t do every single thing we possibly could’ve to support them.”

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