It should not be a place where they experience constant fear, harassment and discrimination.
Bullying has been a problem for many years, but with the invention of social media like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, bullying does not end when the bell rings. Now, from the comfort of home, students can engage in relentless attacks through texts messages, nasty posts, unflattering pictures and other borderline criminal forms of harassment.
We often use the word harassment when referring to abusive and offensive conduct against adults, but when it comes to our children, even though the acts of harassment are similar to what adults face, we call it bullying, and send our children off to school to “toughen up.”
In an effort to reduce the bullying of students based on their real or perceived sexual orientation, Réseau ACCESS Network (RAN) liaises with Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) groups — student-led organizations in schools that help create a safer and supportive environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth and their straight allies.
Many straight students have been the target of anti-gay bullying because they were perceived as being gay, so our hope is that making schools safer for LGBT students will also make schools safer for straight students.
Gaston Cotnoir, RAN sexual health co-ordinator, and I offer resources and support, as well as a variety of workshops in both official languages for administrators, teachers, support staff and students from Grades 8 – 12. In these workshops we facilitate discussions and help participants brainstorm solutions for recognizing diversity, reducing homophobia, and making schools a safe environment.
When meeting with students who are LGBT or who are questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity, one of the main questions I get asked is, “What was it like for you when you came out?”
Students and parents want me to tell them that everything is going to be okay, but coming out is different for everyone. For me, coming out was strategic. I was home from university for Christmas break and I needed to know if I should start looking for a new place to live for the summer.
I consider myself one of the lucky ones, as I already had an older relative who was gay, so it was not a foreign concept to my family.
Fortunately, I was not physically abused, kicked out of the house, forced into therapy or any of the other traumatic realities some LGBT people have experienced when coming out.
I tell the students to give their parents a chance to think about what coming out means to them. Often we want our parents to love and accept us without having time to digest this new information about our identity.
Some parents may need to go through a grieving process to work through the new reality that their child’s sexual orientation may be very different from their own.
For the past two years, I have helped organize the annual Classroom Closet Conference – a free day of workshops that gathers students, teachers and support staff, administrators, police, community partners and allies to discuss their roles in creating an inclusive environment for LGBT students and co-workers.
I have been asked several times whether Sudbury still needs a conference like this and my answer is a resounding yes.
Students from all four of Sudbury’s boards have indicated homophobic bullying still takes place. This conference is just one way to provide tools and highlight the local resources available to ensure every school is seen as a safe space.
The Ministry of Education has stated one of its core priorities is increased public confidence in publicly funded education. Efforts to improve school safety, as well as clear school board equality and inclusion policies, would be a step toward that goal.
School boards must not only declare their inclusivity, but must also be seen to be working toward inclusivity as well.
Carla John is the diversity liaison co-ordinator at Réseau ACCESS Network, a non-profit, community-based charitable organization located in Sudbury, Ontario.