Positive space gives students safe haven

[attach]4409[/attach]High school can be a difficult time for most teenagers.

Along with handling issues surrounding hormonal changes, they struggle with who they are and how they’ll fit in. Sexual preference and gender identity often result in added anxiety and social pressure.

Grade 12 student Katie Thackray from Lawrence Park CI, has seen her friends struggle with their sexuality. Those struggles are what convinced her to join the school’s Queer-Straight Alliance in grade 10, a group she would eventually chair.

“I have a few friends who have been questioning their gender and sexuality. I felt it wasn’t something that was discussed,” Thackray said. “I felt that they didn’t have many rights in our school. I wanted to learn and I’ve learned a lot in my time and now I’m teaching others.”

The Toronto District School Board has made it mandatory for all middle and secondary schools to have space in each school so students can talk openly about issues related to their sexual identity. Schools have until June 2012 to find a space to host the program within their buildings.

The area will be designated as positive space and will be considered safe and protected. It will be open for one hour a week during lunch on Friday and will be staffed by a teacher who will answer any questions students may have.

Though Lawrence Park has decided on a physical space, classroom 115, the school hasn’t fully rolled out its program. However, the school’s Queer-Straight Alliance has been laying the groundwork.

The Queer-Straight Alliance has decided to approach students individually or in small groups to allow students to talk freely and get the group’s message out.

However, the group does sponsor annual pride events, such as the Sea of Silence (a day where students take a vow of silence and wear pink shirts) and puts up educational posters to engage the entire school.

Due to a lack of space, the room will be multi-purpose, functioning at times as a classroom, a homework club and a games room.

At a specific time, the room will be used to accommodate students with a variety of sexual preferences.

Guidance counsellor and Lawrence Park’s Queer-Straight-Alliance teacher representative Matthew Perry, says that the student body has become increasingly involved and supportive of the alliance.

“We’ve had a group of kids who wanted to make the whole school a positive space,” Perry said, recalling the day students put up positive space posters on classroom doors.

He says that even though people are generally more accepting of different genders than they once were, there’s still a need for these safe spaces.

“I do see and hear ways in which schools operate that isn’t always supportive of people’s differences,” Perry said. “We teach people math, we teach people science, but we also need to teach teamwork — that’s just as valuable a skill.”

Ward 8 trustee Howard Goodman says the aim of the project isn’t to ghettoize kids who aren’t straight.

“The goal isn’t to make kids safer,” Goodman said. “Kids be can safe, but still afraid. We want to create an environment where every person, staff and students, can be free and fully alive.”

When asked if the Catholic school board would adopt the policy, Maria Rizzo, the trustee for the Lawrence Avenue and Avenue Road area, said she would be supportive.

“We have not yet adopted the equity and inclusive policy so we don’t have anything in place at the moment. My position is that I would support a similar policy….

“Every student is a child of God and has a right to quality education in a safe environment,” Rizzo said.

Thackray says that the success and widespread acceptance of the Lawrence Park Queer-Straight-Alliance is due to the supportive school administration. The group recently won a $3,000 award from the school board, presented to student-led groups that have demonstrated a commitment to creating a school climate that is safer and more positive for students and staff of all orientations and gender identities.

“It just goes to show all our hard work has paid off,” Thackary said.