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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 4, March 2004

When will the ministry step up to the plate?

by Murray Warren

"Making our schools safer will take a fundamental shift in our school culture. Each of us must demonstrate a renewed respect for the diversity of our people. We have to ensure that the values and principles that are the cornerstone of Canadian society are honoured, respected, and taught in our school system." (Lorne Mayencourt, MLA, Vancouver-Burrard and chair of the Safe Schools Task Force report, "Facing our Fears—Accepting Responsibility," June, 2003)

Fine, lofty words, Mr. Mayencourt, and sentiments with which teachers wholeheartedly agree. However, words are often cheap and sometimes belie a reality that mirrors back to us situations that are less than flattering. A case in point is the unfortunate circumstances in which Azmi Jubran now finds himself. Here is Jubran’s story.

The son of an immigrant family from Iran, Jubran entered Handsworth Secondary School, in North Vancouver, in 1993. He quickly became the target of homophobic bullying by students at the school and endured repeated incidents of physical and verbal harassment and assaults. At one point, in a classroom with a teacher present, some boys set fire to his shirt.

Jubran and his parents made complaints to the school administration, to little effect. Unable to endure his plight any longer, Jubran filed a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Commission (which was dismantled by the Liberals shortly after they took power) against his school board and the school administration. According to the B.C. Human Rights Act, a person cannot be denied a service or facility customarily available to the public or be discriminated against on the basis of her or his sexual orientation.

The complaint was referred to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, and it ruled in Jubran’s favour. He was awarded $4,000, which the school board was ordered to pay, for his pain and suffering. The board subsequently sought the assistance of the Ministry of Education’s Schools Protection Program, which provides legal and financial assistance to boards faced with litigation. The case was taken to judicial review at the Supreme Court of British Columbia, with Jubran having to bear the costs of his legal representation. At no point did the board deny the allegations against it.

The judge in the case overturned the Tribunal’s decision, ruling that since Azmi Jubran is not gay, he couldn’t have been discriminated against! The fact that Jubran endured repeated homophobic bullying seems to have been of little or no importance in the judge’s ruling. The board, with the assistance of the ministry’s Schools Protection Program, then sought costs against Jubran, and the court ordered him to pay the board $7,500 in damages.

Faced with the prospect of having to pay the court-ordered costs to the board, plus a $5,000 legal bill from his lawyer for the judicial review, Jubran has little choice but to contest the Supreme Court ruling in the B.C. Court of Appeal. The case is scheduled for later this year. (Jubran will not receive any of the award until the board’s appeal is completed.)

Azmi Jubran’s situation sends a deep chill through the public education system. The message his case sends to students who may have a legitimate and justified grievance about their treatment at school is that if you try to do anything about it, what happened to Azmi Jubran could happen to you.

The Safe Schools Task Force report makes copious references to the challenges faced by sexual-minority students, as well as those who are perceived to be so:

"In nearly every community visited by the Safe Schools Task Force, no matter how large or small, individuals made presentations about the issue of harassment and intimidation based on sexual orientation.

Presenters talked about their experience in the school system and the ways that homophobic discrimination had led to harassment and intimidation that made their schooling difficult. Many gay and lesbian youth told us that they dreaded coming to school.

The task force members heard that even the perception of being homosexual or of being tolerant of homosexuality is enough to result in harassment and intimidation, including both emotional and physical abuse from those who choose to bully."

With plenty of evidence that homophobic harassment and bullying are widespread throughout the public education system, one might have reasonably expected the report’s recommendations to address the issue head on. Search as you may, you won’t find a single reference to it in any of the recommendations.

My partner and I have an outstanding human rights complaint waiting to go to tribunal, charging that the Ministry of Education has failed to make schools safe, affirming, and inclusive for sexual minority people and failed to make curriculum inclusive of their realities and has actively worked to suppress this from happening. At every turn, we have faced ministry obfuscation and delay in meeting its obligations to Azmi Jubran and students like him.

Lending ministry assistance to a school board through its Schools Protection Program to vindictively seek reprisals against a young man whose only goals were to seek justice and fair treatment makes a mockery of Lorne Mayencourt’s words.

For the past six years, the BCTF has been at the forefront in Canada in combating homophobia in our schools, training professional development associates in antihomophobia work, supporting the inclusion and affirmation of same-sex families in our schools, and offering assistance to teachers seeking to establish gay/straight alliances. We have done our part. Isn’t it time the Ministry of Education stepped up to the plate?

Murray Warren teaches at Blakeburn Elementary School, Coquitlam.

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