Board to fight gender-based violence

New program seeks to ensure schools are a welcoming place for all

Ken Jeffers went to school in a culture of silence.

Revealing his sexual orientation to friends when he was in high school would not have resulted in support and understanding, he said.

In fact, it would’ve been quite the opposite.

“It was a terrible time with no support,” he said. “It didn’t exist at the time, but the schools today are very different.”

Jeffers, who is now openly gay, has translated his personal experiences into his professional life.

A former youth care worker and teacher who has been with the Toronto District School Board since 2000, Jeffers was appointed coordinator of gender-based violence prevention in September.

After 15-year-old Jordan Manners, a student at C.W. Jefferys CI, was fatally shot at school in May 2007, the board released a series of reports focusing on safety in Toronto schools.

Although the grade 9 student’s violent death was not gender-related, the school board recognized the need for students to be more aware of gender-based violence, which can include emotional and verbal harassment.

The board does not currently track such incidences, Jeffers said, but he suggests the numbers would be fairly alarming.

“We often think of gender-based violence as being the violent physical act,” Jeffers said. “We often don’t equate on the same level sexual harassment, homophobia, targeting of young women in schools.”

In a 2008 Centre for Addiction and Mental Health study of high schools in Southern Ontario, 46 per cent of girls from grades 9 and 11 said that someone has made sexual comments, jokes and gestures towards them. About 30 percent have been victims of physical sexual harassment — including being touched, grabbed or pinched.

About 34 per cent of male students surveyed said they have been called derogatory terms for homosexual — regardless of their sexual orientation.

Suzette Clark, of the Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation, said whether it’s snapping a bra, pulling someone’s pants down or grabbing a peer who doesn’t want to be touched, school boards see the acts of gender-based violence every day.

Jeffers says the team will focus mainly on junior high school students, as during those years students go through puberty and school board data shows grade 9 students have the highest expulsion rate.

However, some education experts say gender-based violence often starts much earlier within the education system.

In kindergarten and primary school, if a boy hurts or teases girl, it’s often interpreted as a school crush, said Joy Futerman, media program manager at the Leave Out Violence Toronto office.

“That’s what we had normalized in prior generations and accepted and even glorified that negative behavior,” Futerman said.

LOVE, which uses photography, journalism and filmmaking to help victims of violence express themselves, also teaches students how to build and maintain healthy relationships that are free of violence.

Student works are published in the organization’s newspaper, One Love, which is distributed to schools and group homes across the country.

“I’m 42 and I have a memory of what it was like to be a kid,” Futerman said. “The same things happened, but it just wasn’t named, it wasn’t labeled.”

She said the board is taking a step in the right direction.

As little as 10 years ago, Futerman would visit schools and learn students thought it was acceptable to make fun of others’ sexual orientation.

“There’s obviously been a shift,” she said. “But there’s still more work that we need to do.

In September 2008, Clark put together the From PAIN to PRIDE workshop in cooperation with the teachers federation to educate school staff on gender-based violence within the system.

“(Our schools are) places of learning and places that are full of good and wonderful opportunities,” said Clark. “There’s just some situations that need to be dealt with and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Jeffers said when his program is up and running later this month, there will be four student equity program advisors and two social workers dedicated to the focus of gender-based violence in the district’s schools. He also plans on training staff and students by holding gender camps and groups in schools, including women’s clubs, gay-straight alliances and hosting speaker panels.

“We need to raise awareness that this is a continuum that builds over time,” Jeffers said. ”We need a broader perspective than the boys-will-be-boys attitude.”

About this article:

By: Alex Keshen
Posted: Nov 23 2009 11:06 am
Filed in: NEWS
Edition: Toronto