‘Special interest groups’ shouldn’t drive policy: Parents’s Voice

Published in Xtra! West newspaper | November 2, 2011 | Circulation: 39,600 readers

"Human rights are not a buffet ? you can't pick and choose some forms of human rights but turn your nose up at others," says Harman Pandher, running for re-election to the Burnaby School Board. Photo by David P. Ball

“Special interest groups” — particularly the gay community — should not be driving school board policy, argued the two-week-old Burnaby Parents’ Voice slate at its first election debate Nov 1.

As Burnaby’s school board candidates faced off before the Nov 19 election, discussion returned again and again to the board’s controversial anti-homophobia Policy 5.45.

All the other candidates favoured the policy, which the board passed in June despite protests from parents who claim it stifles their rights, encourages reverse discrimination, and is a political agenda targeting children.

“All we’re asking is when there is discussion, or when there are things taught or discussed that we as a family do not agree with, we respectfully ask you to have our students permitted to not attend that or participate in that,” said Gordon World, one of the June protesters who went on to form Parents’ Voice, now fielding five candidates for school board.

World believes special interests were behind Policy 5.45, though he says “bullying for any reason is wrong regardless of the source or reason.”

Asked how he views statistics demonstrating higher rates of bullying towards queer youth, World responds: “There’s statistics for everything. There’s groups that are bullied for different reasons. In a perfect world nobody should be bullied.”

The response from other candidates to World’s “special interest groups” allegation was swift.

“There’s some irony in this when he said we shouldn’t succumb to special interest groups,” said Rennie Maierle, a candidate with TEAM Burnaby. “I didn’t know that [Parents’ Voice] wasn’t a special interest group, born out of one particular interest and one particular issue.”

Incumbent trustee Harman Pandher fielded audience questions comparing anti-racism and anti-homophobia policies, arguing an LGBT-specific policy is important.

“Personally I feel it’s a slippery slope when you stand against certain forms of discrimination and not others,” said Pandher, with the Burnaby Citizens Association (BCA) slate. “Human rights are not a buffet — you can’t pick and choose some forms of human rights but turn your nose up at others.”

“In my experience growing up in Burnaby schools, I dealt with racism in a daily basis,” he continued. “But I could talk to my parents, teachers and principals. Not all LGBTQ students have these supports.”

One parent expressed frustration that continuous discussion of Policy 5.45 was derailing other important issues.

“My concern is: will 5.45 be the only issue that everything comes back to when you’re sitting at that table?” Jen Mezei, chair of the Burnaby District Parent Advisory Council (DPAC), asked the candidates.

“We are aware that parents feel differently about policies, and we need to respect the views of parents,” she told Xtra, but “you need to agree to disagree and move forward.”

Although Parents’ Voice candidates did not re-use the “special interest groups” catchphrase after the opening salvo of the debate, candidate Helen Ward warned that advocacy groups have too much influence on classrooms and their information needs to be put through a peer review process.

“We need to have a careful relationship with advocacy organizations,” she said, adding that too much “filtering” occurs when some groups are allowed into schools.

The incumbent school board — made up of trustees campaigning under the BCA banner — says the 5.45 controversy needs to be laid to rest. “Human rights and discrimination in Canada are non-negotiable,” said school board chair Larry Hayes. “The school board worked on this policy for two years and we have moved on as a school board.”

“Unfortunately there are other candidates who use — I won’t say waste — our time when we could be doing a lot of other important things,” he added.

Nearly 100 people attended the all-candidates school board debate, including teachers.

“I find it interesting, Gordon, that you used the word ‘primal’ twice, because I think some of your ideas might be from the Stone Age,” Frank Bonvino, a high school chemistry teacher, told World.

“They don’t want their kids to know about homosexuality,” he later told Xtra. “Every time you talk about sexuality in the classroom, they want to pull their kids out. Gay and lesbian kids get bullied all the time. We need to deal with it.”

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