TORONTO — Earlier this month, the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto’s Wallenberg campus held the first meeting of its new gay-straight alliance.
Unlike most of the school’s clubs, which are initiated by students, Keshet – the Gay/Straight Alliance was started by Ali Aber, a guidance counsellor, and Josh Sable, co-director of student activities. They are serving as staff advisers.
“Because no students had approached us, Ali and I thought it was important for us to initiate it,” Sable told The CJN.
Part of the impetus was last month’s news that Ottawa teen Jamie Hubley committed suicide after he was bullied for being gay, “and our concern that nothing like that ever happen here,” Aber said.
Staff, students and parents who have been in contact with her and Sable about the group have been “really positive” about it, she said. About a dozen students turned up for the Dec. 6 meeting, and others have expressed interest in coming to the next meeting in January, Sable said.
He added that “the ultimate goal is to create or maintain an environment in the school that promotes acceptance and tolerance.”
“And a feeling of safety for everybody,” Aber said. “We have a very strongly worded bullying policy in our handbook, and we do take that very seriously.”
Although it’s not mandated by the school, several staff members have posted notices telling lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students that they are in a “positive space,” Aber said.
She and Sable noted that, in general, the 740 students at the campus “are really great” in terms of being accepting, respectful and helpful. However, Sable qualified, “at any school, there are exceptions to that.”
The formation of the group is a first for the school, but according to Paul Shaviv, the school’s director of education, “there was a move to establish” a similar group at the school’s Kimel Family Education Centre in Vaughan a year or so ago. It “never came to anything,” he said. “The students didn’t go forward.”
Shaviv said he encouraged the formation of the new group after being approached about it recently.
Several years ago, Shaviv noted, the winning entry in a short film festival at the school was a student documentary “about the issues around being gay at CHAT.” The film was shown at the final staff meeting that year, Aber mentioned.
Shaviv said the formation of the gay-straight alliance has nothing to do with new anti-bullying legislation introduced in Ontario earlier this month that called on school boards to address bullying and support gender equality and gay-straight alliances. However, he added, “obviously it resonates with the spirit and the letter of the proposed act.”
A coalition of traditional Catholic and Jewish groups has denounced the Accepting Schools Act, calling it a front for a “radical sex education” agenda.
The act urges elementary and secondary schools in Ontario to enforce anti-bullying policies, and to possibly expel students who engage in abusive behaviour. It also encourages school boards to support gay-straight alliances.
Rabbi Mendel Kaplan, spiritual leader of Chabad @ Flamingo, told The CJN last week that he was concerned that the sex-education component “encroaches on the religious freedoms guaranteed to all Canadians.”
“[The bill] further calls for children to be indoctrinated to reject the faith of their parents and the family values they have been taught,” Rabbi Kaplan said.
Joanne Cummings, a clinical child psychologist who is also a director at PREVNet – a national network of researchers that works to put information and statistics about violence prevention into practice – said she is “very much in favour” of the new legislation.
She said there was a national climate survey release earlier this year by Egale Canada, a national LGBT human rights organization, that found 64 per cent of students who were LGBT or had LGBT parents, “experienced higher levels of bullying and harassment.”
“They also found that in schools that do have gay-straight alliances – as well as explicit policies addressing homophobic bullying – students feel much more comfortable and safe,” Cummings said.
“More and more, gay youth are coming out in their high school years, and they really need support.”
Cummings added she doesn’t think private religious schools should be excluded from embracing the Accepting Schools Act.
“I understand the legislation tried to be sensitive and said that the gay-straight alliances don’t have to be called gay-straight alliances, but acceptance and tolerance are important Jewish values.”
Of course, bullying is an issue for straight students, too. Based on research conducted by PREVNet, in a classroom of 35 students, between four and six children are bullying and/or are being bullied.
Cummings hopes a $1.6-million grant from the Networks of Centre of Excellence – a government research funding body – will help put theory into practice, and help Canada develop a national strategy to address bullying.
But Cummings said the strategy to curb bullying goes beyond school policies.
“It’s important for parents to treat each other with respect and model respectful behavior and respectful talk about other people,” Cummings said.
“When parents give their kids lots of encouragement about treating others the way they want to be treated, that sets the right foundation.”
For more information about bullying in Canada, visit the PREVNet website at www.prevnet.ca.