June 27, 2018

Class of 2018: Werklund graduate finds power in voices of youth

Tanya Surette’s research paves the way for a more safe and inclusive future
Tanya Surette and her brother, Micheal Shier, celebrate her graduation from Werklund School this June.
Tanya Surette and her brother, Micheal Shier, celebrate her graduation from Werklund School this Jun Tanya Surette

Growing up in southern Alberta, Tanya Surette remembers witnessing the bullying and harassment her brother endured as a gender and sexual minority student navigating rural schools. While not openly gay, the perception that he did not fit the heteronormative box — or what was perceived as “normal” — was reason enough for students to behave cruelly. 

“It’s difficult to watch someone you love experience unfair oppressions, simply based on a socially constructed notion of what normal is,” says Dr. Surette, who graduated with a PhD in June from the Werklund School of Education.

Working as a school psychologist, Surette was disheartened to find that not much had changed from when she was a teenager.  “Transphobic and homophobic attitudes and language were still commonplace and unchallenged,” she says. Understanding these issues as systemic, Surette focused her doctoral research on understanding how heteronormativity (the privileging of heterosexual identities), homophobia, and transphobia are supported in schools and how it impacts the emotional, social, and psychological well-being of students. 

Survey results give call to action

2011 survey by EGALE Canada found an alarming 64 per cent of gender and sexual minority students felt unsafe at school. More than 20 per cent of LGBTQ+ students had been physically harassed or assaulted at school due to their gender or sexuality. Surette saw the numbers as a call to action.

“The statistics highlighted the massive gap between our province’s mandate that school boards ensure students are provided with welcoming, caring, respectful, and safe learning environments that respect diversity, and the reality of life in schools for gender and sexual minority youth,” she explains. “The survey highlighted that school environments continue to be hostile and unsafe for these students in our country.” 

To better understand the context of what Alberta Education outlines or sanctions as appropriate teaching around gender and sexuality, Surette analyzed curriculum texts for health courses and optional religious courses, where topics involving sexuality and gender were discussed. Then she interviewed secondary students, Grades 9 to 12, who were attending school in rural southern Alberta. She was interested in learning how their schools talk about and treat students who are LGBTQ+, how the curriculum addresses or ignores these topics, as well as how their peers treat and talk about them.

Surette found that key health courses do not address gender and sexual diversity at all, while students reported experiencing routine use of homophobic and transphobic slurs at school and minimal to no reaction or reprimand from school staff to this language. Students said they had never had gender or sexual diversity as the focus of an informed discussion or lesson plan at school.

Surette says students shared a perception that their schools prioritized freedom of religion over their freedom of identity and expression, highlighting that their peers used freedom of religion to justify discrimination against LGBTQ+ students. 

Youth lead the way in driving positive change

The research offered Surette a unique and valuable opportunity to hear students’ voices. “Students are often left out of the conversations about what would make their schools more safe and inclusive. It’s unfortunate because students are the most informed and have the most to gain or lose from school practices that promote or ignore diversity.” 

Despite the hardships these students continue to face in school, Surette is inspired by their resiliency and sees reason to be optimistic.

“I’m hopeful about the future because of the strength and advocacy that we are seeing emerge from youth in our communities. It is the youth that are driving the positive changes around inclusivity in schools. It is the students who are driving the creation of GSAs and social justice initiatives.”

Adults, however, particularly those in education as well as policy-makers have much more to do. The research demonstrates that a gap still exists between policies and what is actually happening in schools, at least in the context of rural southern Alberta.

“If, as adults, we can get behind our young people and give them the education, resources, and tools to continue to advocate for social justice, they will pave the way for a more inclusive future,” Surette explains, identifying the significant role adults can and must play in supporting marginalized and oppressed youth.

The researcher saw some educators willing to step up, though. “A big source of hope for me are the handful of school leaders in southern Alberta who allowed me to engage in this research in their schools because they do believe in the importance of inclusivity and fostering positive learning environments for all of the students.”