Educators gathering in Kamloops for the B.C. Teachers Federation annual conference are looking closely at a provincewide anti-bullying policy tailored for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning) teens.
The Kamloops-Thompson is one of 35 school districts left in B.C. without an anti-homophobia policy and the local teachers union is pushing for change.
"We wouldn't tolerate it around race, so why are we tolerating it around sexual orientation?" said Jason Karpuk, Kamloops Thompson Teachers Association president. "The suicide among that group is among the highest of any group of teenagers."
Last April, the KTTA addressed the board of trustees to say the current anti-bullying policy is not comprehensive enough and that teachers need a better tool for responding to issues.
The issue has the support of many local teens as evidenced by the 700 signatures on a South Kamloops secondary school petition calling for such a policy that a student presented to the board in June.
The district's policy committee will consult parents, teachers and staff on the issue in September and open up the discussion to public input in October.
The teachers federation conference begins today. Local teachers may get some insight into effective lobbying tactics through the conference workshop entitled Getting an LGBTQ Policy Passed in your Local.
The BCTF has lobbied the province for a mandatory anti-homophobia policy across all 60 school districts for the past five years or so.
"We're not quite sure why it's taking districts so long. Maybe it's a sensitivity of the subject for some people in different parts of the province," said BCTF president Jim Iker.
"Whether you support it as a lifestyle or not should not come into the picture. What should come into the picture is making sure all our kids are safe when they come to school."
In Burnaby, the debate over anti-homophobia guidelines caused a high profile backlash by the Parents' Voice organization and even led to death threats. That didn't deter Burnaby's school board from adopting its policy in June 2011.
The latest district to get on board is Surrey, which passed its own version of rules around homophobia last June.
Some opponents say a sweeping anti-bullying policy should be enough to cover sexual orientation, but Iker disagrees.
"There have been issues with our youth when they do come out in terms of the suicide rate because of bullying," he said. "And the one piece (of anti-bullying) that is not necessarily talked about in an open way all the time is the area of LGBTQ."
A UBC study released last week also revealed that anti-homophobia programs in high schools reduces the incidents of binge drinking.
That applies not just for gay students but straight teens, too.
UBC School of Nursing professor Elizabeth Saewyc concluded that anti-homophobia policies reduce overall bullying and create a better environment for everyone.
"We think perhaps what's happening is those gay/straight alliances and anti-bullying policies actually reduce harassment overall in the school and create a more inclusive environment," she said.