It’s not about making people into something they’re not, but making sure there’s room for everyone.
This is one of the ways Amy Witt addressed misunderstandings around SOGI (Sexual Orientation Gender Identity) in B.C. schools.
“Schools are supposed to feel like a place for everybody to belong,” said Witt, School District 83’s SOGI lead, in a presentation at the Jan. 17 school board meeting held at A.L. Fortune Secondary School in Enderby.
“For some students and families SOGI is a window, and for others, it is a mirror,” said Witt.
Providing some historic background leading to the presence of SOGI in schools, Witt explained that in 1996, the Canadian Human Rights Act was amended to include sexual orientation as one of the prohibited grounds of discrimination; in 2005, gay marriage was legalized in Canada; in 2016, gender identity and expression were given protected status under the BC Human Rights Code; and in 2018, the Stigma and Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Centre (SARAVYC from the University of BC) study released statistics and a call for action.
“It’s staggering how poorly some of our youth were doing in B.C. schools in terms of self harm, bullying, suicide…,” said Witt. “It was determined that we, as schools, could play a major role in saving lives and improving the mental-health outcomes for both marginalized staff and student groups – that we could make a big difference.”
Back to the question of what SOGI looks like in schools, in short, Witt said it’s about inclusion.
“For example, what would SOGI in Kindergarten or Grade 1 look like? Well, it would just be the inclusion of a book on families, that not only has mom and dad and child, kind of traditional family structure… but it might also include a family that has two moms or two dads or a family that has a trans-racially adopted child, or a family that has a disabled parent, or something like that,” said Witt. “It’s just trying to make sure that every kid sees themselves, their realities and their families reflected respectfully in the resources we use.
“We’re moving toward just kind of an acceptance and moving into a celebration of diversity. It’s really cool to be yourself, whatever that looks like. It’s really cool to be unique, it’s really cool to be, in terms of gender expression, a boy who is a ballet dancer, it’s really cool to be a girl who is a rugby player, it’s really great if you are a student who is gender fluid and expresses yourself different day by day. That’s awesome and you’re worthy of celebration.”
Witt also stressed how every time we “make room for a gender or sexuality diverse kid, we make room for kids who aren’t that, who just look different.”
“When we loosen up the confines around stereotypes and when we make our schools more inclusive, SOGI inclusive, we end up picking up other kids, some that just don’t fit neatly and tidily into society’s box,” said Witt.
Asked at what age this education awareness and inclusiveness begins in schools, Witt said it’s addressed through a K-12 lens, but not a distinct curriculum.
“I don’t go into schools and teach about SOGI things. I don’t define terms. If I’m asked to I will,” said Witt. “In terms of my role, it’s to make sure we have stories that include all different sorts.”
Witt explained SOGI inclusive education implementation in SD83 includes board policy, a district lead position, school lead training, development of SD83 SOGI guidelines, CEA education, bus driver education, clerical education, principals and vice-principals education and trustee education. Direct student support includes Gender Sexuality Alliances (GSA) and diversity clubs, itinerant and school-based counsellor support, visible signs of classroom and school welcome and safety, accessible single stall washrooms, and “all gender” staff washrooms.
More information about SOGI, as well as other resources for families, can be found on the school district’s website.
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