LGBT advocates urge Peel school board to raise the rainbow flag for Pride Month

If retired school superintendent Carol Speers has her way, in June, all 257 schools in Peel District School Board (PDSB) will be flying a rainbow flag for Pride Month.

Raising the flag would mean amending a current policy, which is a process, says chairperson

The Peel District School Board will make a decision later in May about whether all 242 schools will fly the rainbow flag for Pride Month this June. (Eduardo Lima/Canadian Press)

If retired school superintendent Carol Speers has her way, in June all 257 schools in the Peel District School Board (PDSB) will be flying a rainbow flag for Pride Month.

In this aspect, Peel has fallen behind other surrounding school districts, including Halton, York, Durham and Toronto — all of which already fly the flag at certain times of the year. And that has Speers worried.

"I have the hope, in my heart of hearts, that they'll do the right thing," she told CBC Toronto on Friday.

"I have to have that positive stance for myself or it would be a depressing place to live."

Speers, a member of the LGBT community for 30 years, will be one of the speakers at a board meeting on Tuesday. She will be representing the Pride Employee Resource Group, an LGBT advocacy group within the school board.

Retired superintendent Carol Speers will speak to the school board on Tuesday to explain why she feels it's important to fly rainbow flags at all board buildings for Pride Month. (Twitter)

Initially, the issue came up last spring when other school districts were getting ready to fly the rainbow flag — an international symbol for sexual diversity and pride.

Speers said she understood it wouldn't be happening for Peel at that time because of the difficulty in amending a policy which only allows the Canadian and provincial flags to be flown on PDSB flag poles.

Although the advocacy group was formed last June, a request to amend the policy was not formally put to the board until this year.

In April, Speers said she was told that the flag issue "was stalled," so she joined the advocacy group post-retirement "to provide some support and perhaps some expertise," referencing her 33 years as a school administrator in Peel.

"Whenever we change things, people perhaps sometimes need to develop a deeper understanding of what the issues are," she said, adding time is of the essence since work still needs to be done getting education packages together, not to mention ordering the flags themselves.

Speers says over the years, she's had to decide how much to reveal to students and staff about herself. But at this point in her life she's very open, but says that comes from "a position of power and privilege, and it's one that not everyone has."

"I think everyone should be allowed to be proud and clear and out about who they are."

LGBT family to speak at meeting

Last year around this time, the playground equipment at Mineola Public School in Mississauga was vandalized with homophobic graffiti. Paul Skippen's son Ronan, 9, wouldn't play at recess for the three days it took to wash it off.

"He would go and stare at it," Skippen said. "It's the first time he's experienced homophobia."

Skippen didn't think the graffiti was directed at his family in particular, which includes his daughter, Meriel, 5, and his husband, Robert Bacinski. And he added that during the incident the school was "great" and have since put up rainbow flags at the school's entrances.

Paul Skippen, back left, along with his husband, Robert Bacinski, and two kids, Meriel, bottom left, and Ronan, will speak at the hearing on Tuesday about why they think it's important to fly the rainbow flag at Peel schools this June. (Submitted)

That's not to say there haven't been issues for his family at the school, including a time in 2015 when protests in Peel region over the new sex education curriculum put Skippen on edge, he says.

"We didn't feel comfortable during that time," he said, explaining that before making play dates for his kids he had to check to make sure "the parents were OK with us."

On Tuesday, Ronan is going to speak to the board and share a story about being bullied last week "because he has two dads," Skippen said, adding that the rest of the family will also speak about why raising the flag is important.

"What's unique about being in a minority which is LGBT … the chances of you having anyone else in the family that is [the same] is frankly pretty slim," he said. "That's what the flag is for — it's how you find your chosen family. In this case it would be an open symbol that shows the Peel institution gets that."​

Skippen says if the motion doesn't pass because of either "cost or bureaucracy" he would be profoundly disappointed.

"I would hope that the lives of our children are worth more than that."

Request 'sounds reasonable,' says chairperson

Janet McDougald, PDSB chairperson, says the flag request "sounds reasonable" but more information is needed.

"I always find that it's a good conversation because there's a lot of community [members], there's a lot of employees [and] students that don't understand issues," she told CBC Toronto.  

"We do serve a very diverse community across Peel and therefore we have to think about the constituents we serve and that we're being fair."

She adds that she has mostly heard support for the raising of the flag.

Board chairperson Janet McDougald will be hearing from LGBT advocates on Tuesday about why the board should fly rainbow flags for Pride Month. (CBC)

Because this is the first time the group has officially requested the amendment, McDougald says the board is simply going through a regular process.

She explains that care needs to be taken when amending the flag policy because "other organizations who we know will come forward and ask the same request of us and probably have legitimate reasons."

"That's not a problem per se, but it is a process we need to discuss and put in place so we're consistent and fair with everybody."

After considering the request, the board will respond with a decision at the following meeting on May 22.

With files from Trevor Dunn