WINDSOR: Administrators at a Catholic school in Windsor, Ontario, are allegedly threatening to launch a lawsuit in an attempt to silence a gay student who is speaking out against homophobic discrimination at the school.
Brooke, 18, a Grade 12 student at St Thomas of Villanova Catholic Secondary School, who asked that her last name be withheld, has had a rough school year so far. It began with the death of her father on Oct 1. On top of that, Brooke says a teacher has been bullying her because she is gay and in a relationship with a fellow student.
And ever since the teacher outed their relationship to her girlfriend’s parents, Brooke says, the school has become the only place the pair can see one another, so she has no choice but to stay.
“My girlfriend’s parents are pretty strict and don’t really like gay people,” she says. “After [she was outed], I wasn’t able to see my girlfriend outside school, and I still can’t to this day.”
Brooke and her girlfriend.
After Brooke’s dad died, she missed a week of school. When she got back to class, she was surprised to see her mark had dropped significantly. Her religion teacher, Jolene Coste, told Brooke she’d missed too many lessons while away on bereavement, she says.
Brooke informed the principal that she should be exempt from work because her father had died and she needed some time with her family. But Coste made her do the assignment anyway, she says, and docked her 50 percent for “lateness.”
John Yan, director of communications with the Toronto Catholic District School Board, says that while he can't speak for other school boards, he thinks administrators should grant time off for bereavement according to each student's needs.
One of Brooke’s classmates, Brittany Bennett, says Coste treats Brooke differently than other students. “She’ll give other students loads of time if they’re away. She won’t mark them late.”
Brooke’s mom, Tina Dagenais (Brooke and her mother do not share a surname), is furious that the school failed to provide a safe and supportive environment for her daughter. She calls it a “very strict and homophobic Catholic school.”
“This teacher has been giving Brooke trouble all year,” Dagenais says. “I find her actions inexcusable and flat-out ignorant. This is a kid whose father just died. This teacher has been singling her out because she is gay and embarrassing her with her girlfriend.”
Brooke says the bullying from Coste started in September, when the teacher found out she is gay. “[Coste] would see me holding hands with my girlfriend in the hallway,” she says. “Whenever I would see her in the hall she would look at me with a disgusted face.”
In class, Brooke says, Coste told the lovers to stop facing one another. “I guess because we stare at each other,” Brooke says. “And she would make comments in front of the class about how homosexuals cannot have a real family. I know teachers have to teach just the facts. But this teacher always says, ‘I believe.’ She always teaches what she believes in.”
Brooke says she has remained a student at the Windsor Catholic school because it's the only way she can see her girlfriend.
One day in January, Brooke says, Coste was talking to the class about marriage but pointed out that “homosexuals can’t have a real marriage” because there’s no procreation.
Coste has made it clear in class that she believes homosexuality is wrong, Brooke says. “She said, in front of the whole class, ‘I believe until the day I die that homosexuals can not get married in church.’”
A question about what makes a “real” marriage came up on the mid-term exam, and for Brooke, it was the final straw.
“I wrote in capitals, ‘F*CK ALL YOU CATHOLICS. I’M GAY AND GOD LOVES ME TOO.’ I finished the exam. Just for that one question I wrote what I had to write.” (The “*” was in Brooke’s original answer.)
When Brooke handed in the exam, she says, Coste took one look at it and called the vice-principal.
Administrators then tried to expel Brooke, but her mom got involved and backed up her daughter. “My mom called the school and told the vice-principal that [Coste] is being unprofessional. She’s discriminating. Neither the school, nor the school board, backed me up,” Brooke says.
The punishment was dropped to a 10-day suspension. Her mom kept fighting the principal until it was knocked down to three days.
For her part, Coste told Xtra in a phone interview that the school was right to punish Brooke. “I’m not the person who suspended her. I’m not the person who did this . . . Her suspension stands because of the content of what she wrote on the exam.
“The exam question was about curriculum. It was about Catholic and theology content,” Coste adds. “I did nothing wrong. All I have ever done is teach my curriculum in a Catholic school, according to theology. That’s all I’ve ever done.”
"If [Brooke] feels uncomfortable, that's her choice," says teacher Jolene Coste.
Coste didn’t refute that Brooke and her girlfriend have been on the receiving end of dirty looks and homophobic remarks; she just denies that she is responsible for any of it.
“If she feels uncomfortable, that’s her choice,” she says. “I have no problem with gay students because I have lots of gay friends myself. I have some very good homosexual friends. That is their choice in their lifestyle. What I teach in my classroom is solely curriculum. It has nothing to do with my feelings toward anyone.”
At that point in the conversation, Coste hung up the phone.
Dagenais says she would move her daughter to the local public school, but Brooke doesn’t want to be separated from her girlfriend.
“The students need to feel safe,” she says. “That safety net needs to be there, and it’s not there at Villanova. Same-sex relationships are frowned upon, and that’s wrong. They make it very hard for teenagers to come out.”
Dagenais, who says she has written numerous letters to the principal in an attempt to stop the bullying, supports her daughter unconditionally. “You should see these two girls together. They are just so cute. They make me want to cry. This weekend is their one-year anniversary. They are just adorable, and they’re so happy together.”
Most of the time the couple have to sneak around, and Dagenais helps make it easier for them to see one another. For the anniversary party, Dagenais picked up Brooke’s favourite cupcakes, part of her girlfriend’s plan to present her with a promise ring, she says.
Brooke says administrators at St Thomas of Villanova Catholic Secondary School have threatened her with a lawsuit because she's complained about homophobic bullying at the school.
Meanwhile, at school, Brooke says she is relieved she is no longer in Coste’s religion class. “But I see her in the halls every day. I’ll be at my locker with my girlfriend. [Coste] still makes faces at us as she walks by. It’s like she’s disgusted.”
“I just want this teacher to know that her behaviour is hurtful. She must know that what she is doing is wrong. She’s been doing it for years.”
This isn’t the first time Brooke has faced bullying, Dagenais says. Two years ago Brooke tried to commit suicide because she was on the receiving end of homophobic bullying from another student.
“This kid was relentless,” she says. “And when Brooke retaliated, the school tried to suspend Brooke. This school is ass-backwards.”
Dagenais says bullying is learned behaviour. “Teachers like Coste are the roots of the bullying. If they make smart-ass comments, the students see it and snicker and do the same thing. The teachers are setting the example.”
Bennett, who was also in Coste’s religion class, says Brooke isn’t the only student that Coste has bullied. “It’s not just Brooke,” Bennett says. “She bullies a lot of students.”
But Bennett admits Coste seems to have a special dislike for Brooke and her girlfriend, even separating the couple in classes that they had together. “Separating her and her girlfriend is totally unfair. And I would think it affects her school work because she’s so afraid to go to school and put up with it.”
The principal of St Thomas of Villanova Catholic Secondary School, Pat Hickson, did not respond to Xtra's requests for comment.
On Feb 22, after a family friend contacted Xtra for help and Xtra contacted Coste, the principal and board were notified of the pending story and Brooke was called into the principal’s office and interrogated.
Brooke says Principal Pat Hickson, who did not respond to Xtra’s requests for comment, threatened to sue Brooke for defamation and tried to ban her from speaking to the media.
“It’s not defamation if you’re telling the truth, first of all,” says Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, equality program director for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA). “It’s also not defamation if you’re merely stating an opinion. They could sue, but they would lose.”
Likewise, the principal should not be preventing Brooke from speaking out, Mendelsohn Aviv says. “If the school is telling her she cannot speak to the media and they are threatening her with punishment for her desire to air her grievances publicly, when she has a right to do that, I would say that is an illegitimate attempt to silence her, and I would think that it’s extremely intimidating.
“It sounds like this is discrimination, and also retribution, which is also an offence under the Ontario Human Rights Act,” she says.
The Ontario Human Rights Code considers that people who stand up for their rights are frequently subject to harassment and intimidation in an effort to silence them. If a person stands up, and there is retribution against them, that’s also a human rights violation, she explains.
In June 2012, legislators at Queen’s Park passed the Accepting Schools Act, anti-bullying legislation
that includes explicit protections for queer youth. Mendelsohn Aviv says it’s the duty of schools to provide a safe and welcoming environment for students. “They must protect students from other students who may be bullying, and certainly from teachers or administrators if they are bullying. That is in the Education Act.
“And it’s hard to imagine a situation of greater vulnerability than a lesbian student in a homophobic environment, a young person dealing with an older person, a young person who had just lost a parent.”
When this Xtra reporter visited Brooke’s school Feb 26, Hickson refused to speak with her, forwarding all questions to the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board. This reporter returned Feb 27 to meet Brooke during her lunch break and take her photograph but was chased off the property by Hickson, who said, “You have to make an appointment.” Repeated calls to the school have not been returned.
"Frankly, I think it's disgusting that no [administrator] is standing up for her," says NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo.
(Xtra file photo.)
Xtra spoke to Mike Seguin, superintendent of student achievement at the Windsor Catholic District School Board. Seguin says the school provides sufficient resources for students. He declined to comment on the details of Brooke’s case.
Recently, he says, bullying has been top of mind for educators. “We do believe the schools handle these situations appropriately,” he says. “The first step should always be to trust the administration of the school.”
If students who are being bullied can’t get action at the school or board level, what then? “We have a process in place to deal with these matters . . . [Brooke] should just work with the school. I’m quite confident with the school. They are excellent.
“When we deal with situations, not everyone is happy all the time. We try our best.”
Seguin refused to comment on homophobic teachings, which Brooke and Dagenais say are woven into the curriculum taught at the school. “I won’t even talk about that. We try to help all kids, all the time.”
MPP Cheri DiNovo, who was instrumental in the passage of Ontario’s Accepting Schools Act
last year, says a school system that accepts tax dollars must provide safety and security for all students. “That’s not just physical safety, but also psychological and emotional safety as well,” she says. “I call on every adult that surrounds her in that school system to stand up for her safety.
“Here we have a student in a publicly funded school that is not getting the support from her administration. She does not feel safe. Her concerns are not being addressed. Frankly, I think it’s disgusting that no [administrator] is standing up for her.”
DiNovo says it’s now the province’s job to ensure the act is enforced. Students shouldn’t have to face a legal battle to get the protection they deserve, she says. “[Education Minister] Liz Sandals herself should intervene. It’s sad we have to ask this of our students.”
Xtra contacted the ministry, but no one there has responded to a request for an interview. Instead, Sandals sent a statement.
“We take the safety of all students, parents, teachers and staff very seriously,” she states. “Bill 13 requires boards to provide supports for the bully, the bullied, and the bystander and requires principals to investigate all reports of bullying. It also requires school boards to have policies and procedures on bullying prevention and intervention.”