Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Division OK with anti-bully bill

Hanover will back gay-straight alliances; Bible Belt opposes measure

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Hanover School Division's four high schools in Steinbach and area will accommodate and support any student who wants to form a gay-straight alliance.

A protest meeting against Bill 18 drew 1,200 people in Steinbach Sunday night, but Hanover school board chairman Randy Hildebrand has promised Education Minister Nancy Allan his division will comply with anti-bullying legislation.

"We support all our students -- we want a safe learning environment for them," Hildebrand said Wednesday, a day after meeting with Allan. "We will work with our students -- if there are students who want to form a GSA, we will support them and we will accommodate them."

Hildebrand acknowledged there are mixed feelings about Bill 18 in southeastern Manitoba.

The region, sometimes referred to as the province's Bible Belt, has a number of towns with strong faith-based traditions.

Both he and superintendent Randy Dueck have been feeling the heat over Bill 18, especially after Sunday night's combined information session and prayer meeting at Steinbach Christian High School.

Steinbach Christian principal Scott Wiebe could not be reached Wednesday.

"It was important she (Allan) heard there are different perspectives -- there's a multitude of voices from our area," Hildebrand said.

Hildebrand said he's aware the provision for gay-straight alliances in the anti-bullying bill could push some families into private schools or home schooling.

Most of the dozen people who've called him directly this week, and others who've called the division, are opposed to Bill 18, specifically the provision that if a student wants to form a GSA in the school, then the school must accommodate that student.

Gay and straight students form a GSA to offer support to each other, to create a safe place in the school in which students can socialize, and to have a base for working against homophobia in schools.

"There are some saying they certainly wouldn't want them in our schools," Hildebrand said.

He said if Allan carries through on her plans to enforce Bill 18 in both public and private schools, "I don't think there would be an exodus."

However, if faith-based private schools are given any leeway, Hanover could lose students, he said.

Allan reaffirmed Wednesday Bill 18 will apply across the board to both public and private schools.

"At the end of the day, we want to have safe and caring learning environments. They can't learn if they're feeling threatened and they're feeling bullied," she said.

Allan said the province is still considering what action it would take if any school that refused to respect any provision of Bill 18 could not be persuaded to comply.

"We're looking at that as we go down the road," she said.

Allan said she's unaware of any protest against Bill 18 anywhere else in Manitoba.

Hanover trustees had the discussion about GSAs a year ago, Hildebrand said.

That's when a student came forward wishing to form a GSA in one of the high schools, though he wouldn't say if it was in Steinbach, Grunthal, Landmark or Niverville.

"We said we would accommodate it," Hildebrand said. "They did meet a couple of times."

Hildebrand said the GSA was not met with a negative reaction, but has not been active recently: "It was more that the individual was not willing to take a leadership role."

Hanover will provide space in school, and there are teachers willing to volunteer as supervisors, for any GSA request from students, he said.

As with any student group meeting in schools, a GSA would have to "promote a positive learning environment," said Hildebrand.

People who attended Sunday night's meeting and those who have signed petitions have accused Allan of threatening their religious freedom.

Hildebrand didn't want to dissect theology, but said there are different positions within the highly religious area.

"It's an interpretation of their faith, it's an interpretation of how they read scripture," he said.

Meanwhile, Garden Valley School Division board chairman Sam Berg and superintendent Vern Reimer were to meet later Wednesday before making a statement about any potential impact of Bill 18 on Winkler and area schools.

Altona-based Border Land division superintendent Krista Curry didn't respond to interview requests.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 28, 2013 A3

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