Homophobia and ignorance

Posted by on August 6, 2012 at 11:43 pm.

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.”

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