School board to debate gay-straight alliances

The Red Deer Public School District board is set to debate how it addresses gay-straight alliances.

The Red Deer Public School District board is set to debate how it addresses gay-straight alliances.

“The board said to me earlier this year ‘We really want to have direct contact with our students,’ out of that came the student advisory committee and they on their own determined they want to talk to the board about GSAs,” said Piet Langstraat, Red Deer Public superintendent. “The local ATA comes to me and says ‘the board of trustees and you as superintendent need to consider GSAs.’

“It’s not as if these things were all planned to provide input into the board’s decision, but I’m happy they’re all occurring.”

Red Deer Public School District will debate a motion at an upcoming meeting about entrenching its own policy regarding gay-straight alliances. The board could become the sixth school district in Alberta to do so.

Langstraat said it is up to the board to determine how they will address the issue, perhaps through board policy or administrative procedure.

Kris Wells, an assistant professor and director of programs and services for the institute for sexual minorities studies and services at the University of Alberta, was invited to visit by the Alberta Teachers’ Association local 60’s diversity, equity and human rights group, which Patti Yackulic chairs.

“The reality we see in our schools is more youth coming out at younger and younger ages and wanting to create safe, respectful and inclusive environments, and to build the professional knowledge to best support a group of students who have traditionally been at risk in our school environments,” said Wells.

Wells was in Red Deer on Tuesday talking with members of the Red Deer Public administration, board, teachers and members of ATA local 60. He talked about the student experience, risks facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students (LGBTQ), and how to reduce the risk from a staff and teacher perspective.

“We have five school boards in the province with stand-alone gender and sexual orientation policies,” said Wells. “As part of those policies are specific provisions to support GSAs.”

Everett Tetz, a member of the ATA’s provincial diversity, equity and human rights group, said they wanted to bring LGBTQ concerns to the forefront. And after discussions with Yackulic, the two approached Langstraat and started working on the issue in the SCHOOL district.

“Initially this was just bringing awareness to LGBTQ concerns,” said Tetz. “This happened to time with a political shift that is happening so everybody is aware of it. In my mind, there is a shift happening, a social and political shift. It’s really about us as a district looking at what side of the shift we want to be on.”

Tetz and Yackulic presented to the board on the issue last November. They are also scheduled to present to the district’s parent council.

The issue of GSAs and support for LGBTQ concerns in the public school district doesn’t just include students learning and discovering their own sexuality. It also includes children of gay couples.

“Now that we have same-sex marriages, we have kids of same-sex marriage couples in the schools,” said Yackulic. “Those kids are targeted because of their parents and that is so unusual.”

Students at Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School are attempting to form their own gay-straight alliance. Lindsay Thurber was the first in the province to form such a group in 2000, when a sub-group of the Students and Teachers Opposing Prejudice organization formed a gay-straight alliance.

“We have a responsibility to ensure we have a safe and caring environment for every student we serve and every staff member employed by us,” said Langstraat. “As we become more aware of the issue this segment of the population faces, we feel a compelling responsibility to respond. We’re just trying to figure out how best to respond.”

Langstraat said the work done on Tuesday to talk about GSAs and supporting LGBTQ and other at-risk students is being done in parallel with the board’s decision, regardless of the outcome.

“There are some really compelling statistics that don’t only apply to Red Deer Public, but apply to the city and globally,” said Langstraat, pointing to studies that show LGBTQ youth have a higher risk of not completing high school, drug abuse, homelessness and suicide.

“We hope the board will establish some policies similar to Edmonton Public,” said Yackulic.

The Edmonton Public School District was the first to adopt such a policy. It very clearly supports students who want to start a GSA. There are more 20 GSAs in the district.

mcrawford@bprda.wpengine.com

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