Gay Steinbach student asks Hanover School Division to update diversity policies

Student Mika Schellenberg, 17, attended the school board meeting in Steinbach, Man., on Tuesday to ask trustees to update the division's diversity policies to better include LGBT people.

Mika Schellenberg, 17, wants Hanover School Division to allow discussion of LGBT issues

Mika Schellenberg, a Grade 12 student in the Hanover School Division, asks the school board to update its policies to promote greater understanding of LGBT community. (Kim Kaschor/CBC)

A 17-year-old's presentation at a Hanover School Division office brought many in a crowd of about 70 to their feet and others to tears on Tuesday night.

Student Mika Schellenberg attended the school board meeting in Steinbach, Man., to ask trustees to update the division's diversity policies to better include LGBT people.

"I was amazed because so many of my friends, alumni from the school, and teachers and people from the community — so many people that I didn't even know came," Schellenberg said.

Schellenberg asked the board to reconsider a request made by parent Michelle McHale at the previous board meeting in April.

McHale, who said her child was being bullied for having two moms, asked the division to update its diversity policies after she found out her child's teacher was prohibited from speaking about same-sex families in the classroom. Her request that the division allow discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms was denied. 

Schellenberg, who is openly gay, wants the division to adopt policies similar to those of the Winnipeg School Division, which encourage teachers to speak openly about diversity within families, including those with same-sex parents.

She said she felt compelled to add a student voice to McHale's request.

"Even after the meeting [in April], right afterwards, I thought it would be good to have a student's perspective if the issue got turned down, and then they turned it down very quickly," she said.

Current policy keeps parents informed

Schellenberg received a standing ovation after her speech, but some, such as Dylan Barkman, remained seated.

Barkman is the pastor at Pansy Chapel, about 20 minutes south of Steinbach. His children go to school in the Hanover School Division, and he supports the current policy that requires teachers to inform parents if their children are asking questions about homosexuality.

Dylan Barkman, the pastor at Pansy Chapel south of Steinbach, supports current policies that keep parents informed about the types of questions their kids ask in class. (Kim Kaschor/CBC)

"For our kids to be aware of different perspectives and different world views and different ways of life, I think is a great idea. But to tell them what is right and what is wrong, that is something that should be left up to the parents," said Barkman.

Trustee Rick Peters also expressed concern over an updated policy that would leave parents out of the equation, asking Schellenberg at what age a student's questions about sexual orientation should remain confidential.

"All ages," Schellenberg said. "This is part of who they are, and if they're figuring it out, they should have the freedom to do that and not be told by someone else who they can and cannot tell."

Other trustees were visibly moved by the presentation. Cyndy Friesen responded to Schellenberg's presentation while holding back tears.

Hanover School Division trustee Cyndy Friesen is moved to tears after a presentation by Mika Schellenberg, 17, on Tuesday night. (Kim Kaschor/CBC)

"I'm very saddened that you have to put yourself in this position to do this, and I thank you for coming and bringing awareness to us," Friesen said.

Community support

John Neufeld was in attendance as a concerned community member. His children are now out of the school system, but he said it was important to speak up as someone who has lived in Steinbach his whole life.

"I want to make sure that the board knows that there are lots of people in this town that want to give everyone a welcome. The school division prepares people to live in this community, and I want to make sure that they are taught that we have to respect and welcome everyone," said Neufeld.

Evan Wiens successfully fought for a gay-straight alliance at Steinbach Regional Secondary School. (Kim Kaschor/CBC)

Evan Wiens, a former Steinbach high school student who fought for and won the right to create a gay-straight alliance at his school, drove from Winnipeg to show his support. He said the evening brought back difficult memories for him.

"Seeing her up there, it's almost a continuation, or déjà vu, of myself three years ago. Halfway through the speech I started crying a little bit, because I was thinking about the fact that when I was in Grade 8 and 9, I would be bullied so much … and to see her fighting for inclusion in middle school, it just completely broke and warmed my heart at the same time," said Wiens.