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New West schools' SOGI team eyes more parent engagement

Culturally specific supports around issues of sexual orientation and gender identity are needed in the school district, says board chair

If you have a child in a New Westminster school, expect to hear more about SOGI in the coming months.

The school district’s SOGI team is looking at ways to have more direct engagement with parents as it continues to roll out its work around sexual orientation and gender identity.

“There’s been a lot more conversations happening over the last 15 months around issues related to equity,” said Rav Johal, the district principal for equity and inclusion. “We’re really excited about how that can look in terms of further engagement with parents.”

Johal and the district’s SOGI lead, Kai Smith, gave a presentation to school trustees at their education committee meeting May 11.

Smith said the SOGI policy and procedures the district has adopted are a good backbone for the work it’s doing to create supportive environments for all students and staff.

Smith noted that work can cover issues such as how to handle privacy around student identity, how to deal with sports and change rooms, and how to assign hotel rooms during school trips. It’s also about such seemingly simple but important actions as having teachers use gender-neutral terms to address classes (“peeps,” “folks,” “scholars” or “snickerdoodles,” for instance; see graphic in image carousel above).

Ultimately, Smith said, SOGI work is about inclusion.

“It’s inclusive in that everybody has a sexual orientation and everybody has a gender identity,” said Smith, who uses gender-neutral pronouns. “It means how we include this messaging and these priorities into how we teach and what we do in the education community.”

LGBTQ+ STUDENTS FEEL UNSAFE

They said it’s important to focus on SOGI because of the stress many LGBTQ+ kids face in school.

“Close to two-thirds of them feel unsafe,” Smith said.

At the same time, two-thirds of teachers who have graduated in the past five years report never having been given SOGI-inclusive training.

That means it’s something the district needs to take on and actively put in place, Smith said.

“We have to have students feel that they belong, and the way that we do that is to have the content and the environment either be what we call a mirror or a window. It either reflects their experience or it shows them the experience of others so that they can learn from them,” they said. “SOGI allows us to do that.”

Smith said the district’s SOGI team is there to help teachers who may be fielding questions or concerns from parents.

“Some parents are struggling with the concept, and others just need some explanation of what they can expect that their child is being taught at a particular grade level and then are fully supportive coming on board,” they said.

Moving forward, the SOGI team wants to have more direct contact with parents.

Smith said the team is eyeing the idea of parent nights and Q&A sessions to help provide a broader understanding of the concepts of SOGI.

“I think it’s important that we start to get the message out, or that we continue to get the message out, that having SOGI available to our students is actually to their advantage,” Smith said, pointing out that being well-versed in the realities of others’ experiences will help students moving forward in both schools and workplaces. “To be able to understand the reality of others, to be able to know where others are coming from, I think sets our children, our students, up really nicely.”

CULTURALLY SENSITIVE SUPPORT NEEDED

Johal pointed out the district’s students, staff and parents are all at different points in their “learning journey” around SOGI and that SOGI issues also play in to other aspects of identity.

“We are looking to connections to some broader equity initiatives, including our anti-racism work,” he said. “Recognizing that we have multiple, varied stories within our community, we have to consider, how SOGI does intersect with other factors such as race, class, ability and so forth?”

School board chair Gurveen Dhaliwal asked what culturally specific supports might be available for families.

“With those struggling to understand, how specifically are we approaching that? Are we meeting people, parents, with where they’re at?” she asked.

So far, Smith said, most conversations have taken place on an individual level with specific families who have concerns or questions.

“We need more culturally specific stuff, but my issue with that moving forward, with how to put that in place, is I don’t want to be making assumptions about cultures,” they said.

Dhaliwal emphasized the need to offer culturally specific support and said the district’s anti-racism committee will be able to take on some of those questions, too.

“It can be really uncomfortable conversations,” she admitted. “But I think it’s also confronting sometimes realities and how best to equitably support our students – and maybe getting it wrong, but still striving to do what we can.”

Trustee Danielle Connelly suggested SOGI information could be provided through the district’s new Welcome Centre, which is being set up at NWSS as a central resource for newcomers to the school district.

Follow Julie MacLellan on Twitter @juliemaclellan.
Email Julie, jmaclellan@newwestrecord.ca.