Saturday, 29 October 2011

Does KPR Actually Care About the Mental Health of its Students?

The recent suicide of Ottawa teen Jamie Hubley, the son of an Ottawa city councillor who was mercilessly bullied for his sexual orientation and his interest in figure skating, has rightly drawn a massive amount of attention from the press and from citizens across the country. Political satirist Rick Mercer’s “rant” on the subject brought even more attention to the problem of the lack of acceptance of difference, specifically sexual difference and gender identity, in Canada’s secondary schools.

This CBC news article from last week on the subject features commentary by education professors at the University of Regina and the University of Ottawa. “We have anti-bullying programs across this country, but very few of them point out that most bullying occurs around perceptions of people, or name-calling related to, someone being gay or lesbian,” University of Regina Dean of Education James McNinch told CBC Radio's All in a Day. University of Ottawa professor Joel Westheimer pointed out that the way to prevent such bullying is to create more deeply integrated communities within the schools. “Right now in schools, teachers are not given the freedom to create the closer communities that prevent this kind of bullying where students know each other in deeper relationships and teachers get to know students,” Westheimer said on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

New Ontario Minister of Education Laurel Broten is said to be looking into the matter, to see what could have been done differently at the school policy level to have helped prevent Hubley’s situation from deteriorating to such a state that he felt that life simply wasn’t worth living.

Broten need look no further than PCVS.

Let's invite Laurel Broten - formerly Minister of Child and Youth Services and Women's Issues - to PCVS and show her how it's done
I imagine that many PCVS teachers and students would have plenty to say on the subject. PCVS has earned a reputation for accepting differences of all kinds. Students from low-income, single-parent families mingle with the children of doctors and Governor-General’s award-winning writers. Students from the urban core work collaboratively with kids from Millbrook. And students who are beginning to identify themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual hang out with students who identify themselves as “straight.”

Several years ago, a PCVS Drama class wrote and performed a play called “Coming Out Proud” which focused on the exact issues which faced Jamie Hubley and which face any teenagers as they come to grips with their sexuality for the first time in a social environment. The play was insightful and cleverly used humour and satire to challenge our preconceptions about homosexuality and indeed about sexuality in general. The production toured schools at KPR, was invited to other venues outside the Board, and its value as an educational tool in itself was formally recognized, even by the Ontario Provincial Police, who asked that it be performed for them.

The progressive environment at PCVS didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s the result of decades of work on the part of both students and teachers in thinking outside the box, of tailoring the educational experience to suit the individual, of creating a culture of mutual respect by first showing respect. A close-knit community such as that at PCVS takes ages to cultivate – in sharp contrast to the haste with the suits at KPR are trying to tear it all down.

Mental health is a massive problem in Canada today. The problem has been so thoroughly medicalized that we immediately think about Prozac, Ritalin, anti-anxiety drugs, “chemical imbalances” and so forth. Virtually no attention has been given to the obvious sources of severe anxiety and depression in the formation of identity during the teenage years. Show me a young adult with a mental health problem and more often than not I will show you someone who has never been allowed to be fully comfortable with himself or herself, someone who has always felt obliged to put on a front in order to be accepted by their peers, their teachers, and their families. A huge proportion of anxiety and depression is the direct result of repression of sexual instincts, sexual desires and sexual curiosities. A culture of conformity is sure to produce mental health problems, violence and bullying wherever it exists. Bullying behaviour itself is usually the expression of a lack of sense of self-worth on the part of the bully. In other words, what comes around, goes around. Disrespect and intolerance leads to more disrespect and intolerance.

Fortunately, the “vicious circle” can be turned into a positive circle. Respect breeds respect. Students who feel good about themselves not only won’t bully others, they’ll actually encourage others to express their own individual qualities.

With Rusty Hick and Diane Lloyd at the top of the KPR pyramid, KPR has shown a renewed commitment to conformity. Every elementary school was forced into the “balanced day,” you may recall, whether their school communities wanted it or not. Parents rightly complained that busing schedules and administrative interests were determining educational policy. Too bad for you, said KPR. At Fisher Drive, “equitable” appears to mean “forced conformity” rather than “equal opportunity for everyone according to his or her needs.”

PCVS is reported to have been singled out years ago by Hick and the bean-counters for closure. Why? Because it is “different” from the other suburban KPR secondary schools? Hick’s authoritarian tactics have been turned on the very school which is an exemplary model of anti-bullying culture. If Hick is blind to this plain fact, he should tender his resignation immediately. I have no doubt that most Peterborough citizens would be prepared to accept it.

Call Laurel Broten at the at the Ministry of Education. Tell her that if she wants to see how to avoid further suicides and mental health problems in Ontario secondary school students, she should come pay a visit to PCVS. It’s up to you to make that call, remember –  KPR’s own teachers can’t. Why not? They’ve been forcibly silenced, told by Fisher Drive in no uncertain terms that they are not permitted to say anything which could be remotely considered to be critical of KPR and its foolish proposal to close PCVS.

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