Classes resume with new anti-bullying law in place
Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty speaks at a press conference during a visit to Victor Lauriston School in Chatham, Ontario, Tuesday, January 12, 2010. (The Canadian Press/Geoff Robins)
Published Saturday, September 1, 2012 7:57AM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, September 1, 2012 8:11AM EDT
After generating a so-called church-versus-state showdown and whispers of a legal challenge, it appears Ontario’s new anti-bullying law is going into effect without a whimper as students return for another school year.
Controversy that cloaked Bill 13 because it forces publicly-funded schools, Catholic ones included, to allow students to call anti-homophobia clubs "gay-straight alliances" has been muted as proponents herald the legislation, which officially becomes law Saturday, as a victory for equality and human rights.
Because Catholics and the province clashed over the use of the GSA term, the new school year is being watched closely to ensure school boards and school staff comply with the Accepting Schools Act, as it is formally known, and don’t interfere with students’ efforts to set up or name a group.
“I’m looking forward to September with the hope that, for the first time, students who could not have (GSAs) before will now be able to have them and have them publicly, and with a name that they’re proud of,” said Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s (CCLA) equality program and a supporter of the bill. “It’s hard to believe that some schools want to put up a fight or they want to try to impose restrictions or workarounds.
“I hope Bill 13 put the matter to rest … to protect the fundamental rights of all students in the province and so they can have their GSAs or their LGBQ-positive groups or whatever they want to call them,” Mendelsohn Aviv told CP24.com.
Patrick Keyes, a Toronto Catholic District School Board superintendent, said educators at the TCDSB’s 200 schools will not stand in students’ way if they choose to form a gay-straight alliance and use the name.
“If students want the name to be called ‘gay-straight alliance’ we’ll abide by that,” Keyes said.
Watching the outcome
Ontario’s Liberal government drafted the legislation -- an amendment to the Education Act that passed with a 65-36 vote last June (the Tories were the only party to vote against it) -- after some Catholic schools had blocked students’ attempts to set up teacher-supervised anti-homophobia clubs or prevented them from calling their groups GSAs, despite previous provincial legislation that gave them the green light.
After the Halton Catholic District School Board banned GSAs in its schools, the CCLA offered to help students who encountered opposition, Mendelsohn Aviv said.
Suzette Clark, head of educational services with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), said some of its members complained of interference from school boards or principals in the past.
Some teachers also complained their reports of bullying weren’t investigated or taken seriously, Clark said.
A representative of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) said its members reported cases where school boards or principals didn’t investigate complaints.
An early draft of the legislation gave school trustees final approval of group names, but the Liberals tightened the draft to put the power in students’ hands.
Heading into the vote at Queen’s Park, Catholics who spoke against the legislation, including Toronto archbishop Cardinal Thomas Collins and the Ontario Catholic Parent Advocates group, worried the bill would erode Catholic schools’ fundamental teachings on sexuality.
Keyes said homosexuality has been discussed in TCDSB schools before, and the discussion will continue.
“We generally take a pastoral approach. We demonstrate deeply to (students) that they are included in the school and they belong,” Keyes said.
There was speculation Catholic groups may try to look for loopholes within the law, but it appears Education Minister Laurel Broten doesn’t foresee any problems.
“The law is very clear, every single school board must adhere to … each and every aspect of the Education Act,” Broten told CP24.com. “I have every expectation that Catholic schools can operationalize this legislation and I expect that they will do so.”
Critics of the Liberal government are calling for oversight to ensure students are free to start groups and name them as they see fit.
“I’m hoping that the Ministry of Education gives added support on the ground to do this,” said NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo, whose party pushed for the legislation. “It will be interesting to see if the ministry does that or if they take a hands-off, wait-and-see approach.”
Joshua Stern, a writer and at-risk youth advocate, said he worries members of gay-straight alliances will be targeted by fellow students for joining such a club. “My biggest fear is that it’s going to single out the kids and make them a bigger target,” Stern said. “I hope it has a good impact. The best-case scenario is that these groups are supported. I just worry that there is not enough preparation to make it successful.”
Educators and advocates agree there is still plenty of work to do to make schools – and the world, for that matter – a more accepting place.
Hard line against bullying
Because headlines were dominated by the clash over gay-straight alliances, the bulk of the legislation has largely been left in the dark.
There is much more to Bill 13 than the gay-straight alliance matter – it contains finer definitions of bullying and cyber-bullying, allows schools to expel bullies, orders wider education for students and training for staff, and requires principals to investigate all bullying complaints and report back to teachers and victims.
In addition to gay-straight alliances, school boards and principals must accept student groups that promote anti-racism and awareness, understanding of and respect for people with disabilities.
Stern said educators should make every effort to teach bullies the errors of their ways before giving up and booting them out of school.
“A lot of these kids don’t know what they’re doing and we want to write them off and toss them out of school and possibly have them charged,” Stern said.
Mendelsohn Aviv said the CCLA is delighted with the advances in Bill 13 but is not satisfied with the finished product.
Gaps in the legislation mean opportunities for teachable moments may be missed, she said.
“The legislation missed an opportunity to require educators to address the kind of bullying that may not carry discipline but requires a teachable moment,” Mendelsohn Aviv said. “For example, if someone says, ‘That’s so gay,’ that wouldn’t meet the definition of bullying.”
Clark is calling on the province to make sexuality discussion a permanent part of the curriculum in Ontario and create a standard lesson plan for all schools.
“Teachers have been really hungry for solid curriculum that allows them to teach in a safe way,” Clark said. “That curriculum piece is the only thing left undone.”
An ETFO representative echoed the call for a standard, saying it would take pressure off teachers and help to create an inclusive environment.
Broten said she has asked her department to review the existing curriculum to identify potential improvements or additions, and a panel of experts has been established to provide advice on bullying issues and in-school lessons.
Stern said anti-bullying curriculum should include lessons about managing emotions, positive communication, healthy diet, or “real-life skills,” as he put it.
He wants anti-bullying lessons to be presented in lower grades, and he urges parents to be positive role models to teach children that it’s not OK to bully others.
Because this isn’t the first time the government has introduced legislation in an attempt to curb bullying, Stern has his doubts about how effective the new bill may be.
“I don’t know how much the bullying is going to be affected by it,” Stern said. “To me, it is another Band-Aid solution. I don’t know what another bill is going to do. It sounds like they’ve had enough bills.”
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