Category Archives: Ideas

Homophobia and ignorance

After grade 10, Curtis Jeffery was told by staff he couldn’t safely attend school at Prince Edward Collegiate Institute anymore. He spent a couple years at Prince Edward Alternative School, but his troubles seemed to follow him there. Now he’s finishing high school by correspondence.

Jeffery didn’t want to leave his group of friends, but teachers told him it was the most realistic option, for his safety. He was being bullied.

“Most of the time it was just verbal stuff,” Jeffery explained. “But it would get physical. Kids in the smoking area would throw stones or old apples.”

The worst of it was that the incidents, which would happen on a nearly daily basis, were witnessed by staff who supervised the smoking area.

“Two or three times a week there’d be a teacher there that wasn’t really doing anything,” said Jeffery. “I thought that was strange because I brought it to the attention of the teachers a few times. But the only time it got anywhere was when I said that if the teachers weren’t going to do anything about it then I’d have to go to someone else.”

That threat got things in motion, but not the way Jeffery expected. He says he was told to leave, while just three of the 60 to 70 students involved in the bullying were given one-day suspensions.

The school board could not shed any light on Jeffery’s plight.

“Because it’s a couple of years ago I haven’t been able to find a definitive answer as to what would have been said to the student. There’s just too much time that has passed,” said Kerry Donnell, communications officer for Hastings Prince Edward District School Board, in response to the allegation that Jeffery was encouraged to leave the school. “Bullying is taken very seriously in our schools, and it’s acted upon once it’s brought to the attention of an adult in our building.”

According the Hastings-Prince Edward District School Board’s Student Discipline, Bullying Prevention and Intervention procedure manual, unless there is an immediate risk to staff or students, a staff member witnessing bullying and harassment is expected to address it immediately.

For Jeffery’s friend Sarah Renaud Wilkinson, a PECI student at the time, those attacks inspired her to create a Gay-Straight Alliance at the school. So with the help of fellow student Annie Stanley, Wilkinson put in a proposal last year.

Wilkinson left before the end of the school year to complete high school by correspondence, so Stanley finished the job, and got the club started. After some debate amongst staff, the group was established this past spring as the more neutral Diversity Club. The group organized an event for anti-hate day in April, the first and only event it put on before the end of the year.

GSAs, as the clubs are known, are student groups with faculty oversight, which develop programs and events to help make their schools a safer and more welcoming space. A flurry of groups have been created recently in high schools, coinciding with a rash of suicides of gay teens blamed on bullying.

That created controversy, of course. In the GTA, a Catholic school board refused to allow GSAs to exist under that title, and insisted instead the clubs be called Diversity Clubs.

At PECI, there is a variety of opinions about why the club was named the way it was.

Wilkinson, who left the school before the GSA was officially formed, suggested that the word “diversity” was chosen to avoid offending anyone who might be uncomfortable with homosexuality, which goes against the club’s original purpose.

“I expected it to be a widely understood concept,” said Wilkinson. “But apparently I was wrong, because the admins seemed to oppose the name. And though I wasn’t there through all of that decision making process, I’m sure they must have really pushed for it to not contain words like gay, or rainbow, or love. Because who knows what kind of trouble that might stir up, right?”

Cathy Wilson disagrees. She and Gail Henderson are the faculty members who oversee the group. Wilson said that the word diversity was chosen, not to avoid open discussion of homosexuality, but rather to include everyone who wants to be included.

That’s in following with the Ministry of Education’s definition of diversity, which is “the presence of a wide range of human qualities and attributes within a group, organization, or society.”

Jeffery sees it as a way to protect its members from further bullying. Although he was never in the school when a meeting was held, he said knowing students were going into a room where a Gay-Straight Alliance meeting was held would be fodder for further bullying, a difficult pill to swallow for someone who isn’t ready to be ‘out’.

“In principle it’s a really supportive thing, and it gives kids an outlet to talk,” he said. “But the environment that it’s placed in, I don’t know if that’s really the most appropriate choice.”

Jeffery is applying to colleges for the fall of 2012. He wants to leave the County. He says his experiences have not put him off; he just wants to see more of the world. Still, he acknowledges that the abuse he’s felt at the hands of his peers will have an effect on his life. And he’s one of the lucky ones.

“As far as bullying goes I do know a few people who have seen suicide as their only option,” said Jeffery. He referred to an ex-boyfriend, who didn’t attend PECI, but lived in the area, who had killed himself.

This year, the Diversity Club has just gotten off the ground. The weekly meetings should give students a refuge from a heteronormative institution—a safe place.

“PECI is not necessarily a dangerous school,” explained Wilkinson. “I’d say it’s pretty average for a small town high school. But it’s definitely not right for everyone, and can take a mental toll if you’re not ‘normal’ enough. There is homophobia, definitely. There is ignorance, there is subtle bullying, and it all slips under the radar. Not every situation is simple enough to report.”

Accountability

Last week, the recreation, parks and culture department requested $38,000 to repair damage to the wall and foundation of Macaulay House.

Many repairs have been made at Macaulay Heritage Park recently, including $1,750,000 in repairs at the neighbouring Macaulay Church, $400,000 of which were contributed by the municipality. Those repairs are a followup to recommendations made by André Scheinman, a Kingston-based heritage preservation consultant who examined the County owned properties.

“In terms of repair, there had not been a lot of repair money spent on either the house or the church,” said Wendy Lane, the County’s manager of recreation and culture. “When you own your own home, you have to do certain things to keep it going.”

The new repairs to Macaulay house, however, are to fix a mistake.

In 2008, following steps suggested by Scheinman, Ron Dubyk, manager of properties, oversaw a project to eliminate a fungal problem that was causing dry rot in some of the walls at Macaulay House.

It was a two-step project; first clean up the mould, then treat the wall for waterproofing and drainage. That required the contracted company to dig out around the stone foundation. That’s where the trouble started.

“One of the rocks that was a part of the stone foundation fell off and rolled away,” said Dubyk. “Then the brick veneer started to sag.”

The company doing the waterproofing repaired the resulting damage. Those repairs were approved by an engineer. The total cost, to clean the mould, waterproof the foundation and fix the damage was just over $35,000. It was completed in 2009.

In 2010, staff and volunteers at Macaulay House noticed cracks forming on the inner and outer walls where the repair was made.

“It was discovered that the repair work undertaken following the collapse was not sufficient for the foundation to support the two storey wall above,” stated a report prepare by Lane.

It was then that Lane became involved in the repairs of Macaulay House.

Lane has been following the guidelines set out by Parks Canada called The Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada. The guide was not used for the initial repair, but will be used for any further repair.

“One of the things the guideline says is that you try to treat things in small steps. You do small things, and wait to see if it solves the problem, rather than doing huge things and potentially damaging the building,” said Lane. “That’s what we’ve done. It’s taken us a little longer, but we wanted to make sure that that was the problem and not create a further problem.”

Taking small steps, like monitoring the building and trying to find a smaller solution before digging around the foundation again. Lane has been searching for engineers and contractors who have experience working with the guide and with heritage buildings to ensure the new repairs are done correctly.

“We do the best that we can when we’re hiring people. The county has a purchasing policy and we follow the purchasing policy,” said Lane. “I’m trying as much as I can to use the engineers, I’m making sure they’re aware and they know how to work with historical buildings.”

Council approved the spending, but Councillor Janice Maynard and Councillor Alec Lunn expressed concern that the initial repair work was not adequate and was now costing the County an additional $38,000.

“There was an engineer or a project manager that signed off saying that the repairs were done after his section of wall fell down, they signed off on it,” said Councillor Maynard. “Somewhere along the line somebody should be held responsible. These are professional people, are they not?”

Can grads get jobs?

At Loyalist College in March, you can see students hurriedly move through the halls of the school, heading somewhere to do something. Summer is on their minds as they prepare exams, final projects and internship interviews.

Internships are particularly important, students are told, because they provide real job experience and a chance to network, even meet potential employers. For most programs, internships are mandatory in order to complete a program and receive a diploma.

Mention internships to graduating students and you will get a detached, worried look.

Many students are having difficulty finding a placement that will take them, even for free. Students who have found a placement are not always sure what will come next.

Shannon Storey, a photojournalist student, got an internship at a highly regarded Ontario newspaper but says she doesn’t expect a job to come from it. They just don’t need anyone right now.

No one seems ready to admit there is a problem.

Lyndsay Kerik is an employment and career advisor at the Loyalist College Career Centre. The centre offers students help in finding jobs and job search resources.

“The biggest thing we encourage students to do is early job search,” says Kerik. She also points out that 80 per cent of available jobs are not advertised on job boards. “We have lots of resources to assist students who aren’t necessarily good at networking.”

But if the proof is in the pudding, and that makes Kerik’s optimism hard to swallow.

Loyalist has compiled data, available on the college’s website, of graduates in the job market. Not all alumni weighed in. But of those who did, recent numbers are not encouraging.

In 28 of the 52 programs with statistics available between 2005 and 2009, the number of graduates working full-time in related fields went down in 2008 and 2009 compared to earlier years. That’s just a reflection of graduates who were ready to work. Those who chose to continue their education or not to seek employment were not factored into the statistics.

Among those 28 programs is radio broadcasting. In 2009 just 10 per cent of graduates who responded to the survey were working full-time in their field.

Steve Bolton, co-ordinator of the radio broadcasting program commented on the 10 per cent figure. He says the recession caused a blip in the system.

“2009 was the year of the financial meltdown,” says Bolton. “Industry was hit, which meant less money to advertise.  Radio was hit as well because of this.”

Chris Barnim is graduating from radio broadcasting this spring.

“It’s definitely a mix in our class,” Barnim explains. “There’s people who really want to be in radio but there are some going back to school for a fallback… you can make it in radio, but you have to work really hard.”

The school’s two councilors say that they rarely hear complaints from students about graduation anxiety. It only exists in very exceptional cases, where prior emotional problems exist.

But there’s nothing wrong with Barnim, who seems to be echoing the sentiment of a lot of students.

“Stress, a lot of stress,” says Barnim, describing how he feels about his prospects. “Stressing about the future, seeing if you can get a job, worried it’s not going to happen.” He also worries about the available salary. “I feel like I would make the bare minimum for the standard of living, just barely enough.”

Kerik says students may get discouraged by the jobs that are available to them.

“We get the angry students, [who say] ‘Why did I waste my time coming to college if I can’t get the job that I want?’ You have to start at the bottom and work your way up the ladder.”

Many students can’t find work because they don’t want to leave home.

“Students who are willing to pick up and move anywhere to find a job are the most successful,” Kerik explains. “When you want to remain local, there’s only a finite amount of higher employment opportunities that are relative to specific programs offered here.”