It wasn’t planned that way but a recent human rights decision appropriately underlines the National Day Against Homophobia (NDAH).
Last week, a Board of Inquiry for the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission ruled in favour of a teacher who was unfairly discriminated against on the grounds of sexual orientation. The case underlines how homophobia still characterizes many schools.
This week, on May 17, thousands of people across Canada marked the 4th NDAH (see www.homophobiaday.org). NDAH exists because of stories like this one.
Lindsay Willow, a lesbian gym teacher in Halifax, filed a complaint with the Commission because in September 2000, two male colleagues accused Willow of sexual impropriety with a Grade 12 female student.
The colleagues noticed the teacher and student leaving a locker room together. Willow and the student explained they had washed their hands after moving some equipment.
The two male teachers, however, were suspicious because of what they believed was an embarrassed look on Willow’s face. They reported the incident to the principal despite assurances from the student that everything was fine.
The police were called in to investigate and found nothing wrong. Still, the school’s principal monitored her and Willow was also stripped of her duties related to extra-curricular activities. Her career seemed to stall and the situation became intolerable, prompting her to launch the complaint.
After a dramatic hearing earlier this year, the Commission handed down its decision last week. It ordered the Halifax Regional School Board to pay $27,375 in damages, one of the highest ever awards ordered. Furthermore, the Commission directed the Board to make a full retraction and offer Willow a letter of apology.
Tribunal chairman Walter Thompson castigated Willow’s accusers, saying he could not “fathom” the thinking. “The construction of (the circumstances) as indicative of a sexual assault demonstrates, in my view, an element of discrimination against Ms. Willow because of her perceived sexual orientation.”
Thompson also harshly rebuked both the principal, who failed to “create a positive work environment for her” and instead “compounded the difficulties of her life within the school,” and the school board, that “obtusely blamed the police for coming to the school and washed its hands of the complaint.”
School Board Superintendent Carole Olsen didn’t waste time in responding. “I apologize unreservedly to Ms. Willow,” Olsen said. “I accept that she has suffered as a result of being wrongly accused of an impropriety with a student.”
Of the 3 men involved in wronging the teacher, one has retired, another has passed away and the third, the former principal, has an administrative job with the Board. Thompson is not asking them to apologize, as Willow requested. He feels they should have done so before and now, it wouldn’t be sincere.
This news serves as a “teachable moment”, to use a term familiar to educators. As the Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project’s chair Sean Foreman declared, following the decision, “it is up to the school boards and the Department of Education to resolve the bigger problem of homophobia in the schools.”