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‘Kill Yourself’ artistic statement inspires school trustees to rethink discrimination

Comox Valley school board looks to revise policy in wake of former student’s public plea
A large crowd gathered at Simms Park in June to hear speakers in support of Black Lives Matter. Such events are prompting a discussion around revising the school district’s anti-discrimination policy. Record file photo

A pointed artistic statement from a former student has played a role in getting a Vancouver Island school district to revisit its anti-discrimination policy.

School District 71 (Comox Valley) is commited to bringing its anti-discrimination policy up to date during the early months of 2021.

Board chair Sheila McDonnell referred to a recent statement from a former student who left the district due to homophobic harassment while in school as well as out in the community as a whole, as a sign of the need for a revised policy,

“It’s really courageous, it’s a pretty heart-breaking statement,” she said.

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Mackai Sharp’s multi-media project ‘Kill Yourself’ opened on-line and at the Comox Art Gallery in December in an attempt to challenge community thinking on intolerance.

Sharp said his personal motivation for taking on this project was frustration due to a lack of acknowledgment from community leaders that such a problem exists in the Comox Valley.

He said he is particularly interested in seeing change at the school level, which, according to his project essay is where much of the intolerance is experienced. Sharp says it’s not just students being intolerant towards others, but the authority figures turning a blind eye to acts of hatred.

“I want them to present new options, new change in the district,” he said. “I don’t expect them to do that alone. I am more than happy to meet with them. I know a lot of other students that would be very happy to meet with them. We want the conversation to be positive.”

McDonnell spoke about the previous policies on racism and sexism that dated back to the 1970s. These were limited to a couple of sentences. This evolved to include gender orientation, with stronger language around values and rights the district was recognizing. Over time, more details more been moved into the administrative procedures, with relatively little reference in actual policies, which are more geared toward executive level language.

“We identified that as a gap,” she added.

Policy committee chair Michelle Waite presented the original non-discrimination policy to trustees containing the old language, as well as a draft of a new policy, along with a revised administrative procedure.

At present, work has focussed more on ensuring the district includes the right people in policy discussions rather than on parsing the language of the policy.

“We did not do any wordsmithing on any of the documents,” she told her board colleagues.

The committee’s recommendation to the board was to strike an ad hoc committee that would review the draft policy

“This is perfect timing to have that conversation,” trustee Janice Caton said.

She said the policy is coming up for discussion because of conversations with students and the community about discrimination, adding that the district has always had the aim of being safe and inclusive for all students.

“We need to update and look at our policy and include having students in this conversation,” she said, adding some of the language in the current policy is outdated.

Caton also suggested having a student forum on the issue.

“This would be a perfect topic to get our students together,” she said.

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