Sturgeon school trustees hear from expert on supporting LGBTQ students

by Stephen Dafoe

Sturgeon School Division invited the University of Alberta’s Dr. Kristopher Wells, Director of Programs and Services of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services, to their Apr. 22 board meeting. Wells’ 40-minute presentation on how best to support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) students was Wells topic for board members, educators, and media.

Wells presented some statistics on LGBTQ youth in and out of schools, statistics the academic believes should cause concern to educators and the public.

Citing a 2009 national survey that surveyed 3700 students across the county, Wells said 70 per cent of participants said they heard homophobic phrases every day. Ten per cent of the time those comments came from teachers. Additionally, 20 per cent of LGBTQ students reported harassment or assaults. Wells said the most shocking statistic was that almost 53 per cent of LGBTQ students felt unsafe at school. By contrast, only 3.4 per cent of heterosexual students reported feeling unsafe.

The lack of safety is well founded. According to Wells, youth under the age of 25 are the number one perpetrator of hate crimes in Canada, and the same demographic is also the number one victim of hate crime.

Wells also shared recent research from the Toronto District School Board that indicates only 68 per cent of LGBTQ students completed high school, 10 per cent lower than their heterosexual counterparts. Of those, only 54 per cent applied to post-secondary institutions, 14 per cent less than heterosexual students.

“If your schooling experience is not positive, why would you want to complete your schooling experience and go on to post-secondary?” Wells asked, adding post-secondary education is critical to economic and future health.

Higher rates of bullying, assaults, and post traumatic stress disorder are leading to a mental health crisis among LGBTQ youth, according to Wells. “LGBTQ youth are two to three times more likely to take their own life,” he said. “It’s a real challenge for us as educators and as parents if we believe no child is born with hate in their heart. The questions is – what are we teaching our children if the response to diversity and difference is to attack? We attack that which we do not know, and we attack that which we fear.”

Wells said the average age for a student coming out on sexual identity is 15, five years after the average child becomes aware of their sexual orientation. “That’s a five-year gap between when you know and when you are actually telling someone,” Wells said, adding that specific age gap is a period during which core developmental occurs. “You’re really trying to find your place, your space, your identity in the world. We want them to know that they don’t need to change. Society needs to change.”

Part of the solution for Wells is talking about the value of diversity in the education system on the basis that diversity and difference do not take something away from the individual. Rather it enriches the environment. “The most diverse and resilient system in the world is the one right outside our window. It’s nature,” he said. “When a system in nature reaches sameness, it dies and collapses because it can no longer adapt.”

The doctor went on to say transgender children become aware at the age of six, four years after children have an awareness of their gender. The educator said in the past gender identity occurred later in life, often late in life. “Now it’s very positive that these young people and their families are able to identify at younger and younger ages where we can support them to live their lives fully and authentically,” Wells said.

The situation is creating a new chapter for schools to assist with gender identity and transgender matters. Currently, there are seven school boards in Alberta that have the specific policy to assist; however, the passing of Bill 10 will further assist with respect to gender identity and gender expression.

Wells refers to the current generation of LGBTQ students as Generation Queer. They are the first to be fully out in their school communities, the first to grow up in a Canada that has legalized gay marriage, and often the first to have the full support of their parents.

The question for Wells and educators is how will schools meet these needs and opportunities for young people?

Wells sees a number of emerging trends in Alberta to support LGBTQ youth. Chief among them is the increase in the number of gay-straight alliances in schools. There are currently more than 90 in Alberta, and Wells expects a wave after Bill 10 comes into effect in June.

“Gay-straight alliances become that critical intervention point in our schools,” Wells said, adding he is currently working with Alberta Education on an implementation plan. “We want to make sure that those resources are research-informed, evidence-based and are written in a way that ensures educators and parents in our communities both understand and utilize them.”

Wells said Alberta was the first province to provide resources on homophobic bullying and the first in the world to provide resources on transgender bullying. “We have resources to support implementation in place,” he said.

Sturgeon School Division Board Chair Terry Jewell said the Division has been working on best practices for a while. The Division says they are committed to safe, welcoming schools where all students can truly open their minds to learning. “As a board we decided to start investigating diversity in all its forms about a year ago,” Jewel said, adding Wells words and presentation were encouraging.

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