School District 43 is joining school districts across B.C. in updating policies to protect vulnerable students — including those who see themselves as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning).
The move comes as a joint parliamentary committee on child and youth mental health advocated a stronger role for schools in providing mental health services, including initiatives to support LGBTQ youth, who represent approximately 8% of B.C.'s student population and are among the most vulnerable.
Why support LGBTQ youth?
• Research has found that students who identify as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning) are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, harm themselves and consider suicide than the general population.
• These vulnerable youth are more likely to stay connected to school and experience mental wellness if they feel acceptance and support by their family, school and community.
The youth mental health report, presented in January by North Vancouver-Seymour MLA Jane Thornthwaite, said these youth are more likely to be threatened with violence, verbally harassed and experience mental illness than heterosexual youth.
It's not known how many students identify as LGTBQ in SD43 or if they feel targeted or bullied but there there have been Gay Straight Alliance clubs in SD43 high schools for a number of years and, recently, a Tri-City group supporting transgender youth and their families was started by Plea Community Services.
Assistant superintendent Rob Zambrano said LGTBQ youth likely face many challenges and the district wants to make sure these students feel valued and connected.
"We want to celebrate the diversity of people in our schools," he said. "Of course, it's different now than 25 years ago but I think there is still work to be done."
To accomplish this goal, a series of education sessions for teachers and counsellors is planned and a new anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy that will include specific language supporting LGTBQ students, as well as students with aboriginal heritage and those with special needs, is expected to be posted on the district's website soon.
"If you can be more specific, you can target the education more. You can bring us in to talk about homophobia or sexual orientation or gender identity; you can be more specific in how you treat these issues." Brandon Yan, Out in Schools
Zambrano also noted that understanding issues around sexual identity is a topic in B.C.'s new health and education curriculum.
Meanwhile, news that SD43 is updating its policies and educating people around LGBTQ issues is getting the thumbs up from a group that works with schools to foster understanding about the experience of LGBTQ youth.
Brandon Yan, program co-ordinator for Out in Schools (outinschools.com), whose group recently presented a workshop to SD43 principals, said school districts need explicit policies and procedures to set the tone of acceptance and to give teachers permission to bring in programs like Out In Schools into the classroom.
"If you can be more specific, you can target the education more. You can bring us in to talk about homophobia or sexual orientation or gender identity; you can be more specific in how you treat these issues," Yan said.