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Student presentation in Sudbury to go ahead, despite board opposition

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The past few weeks have been a bit of a roller coaster for 16-year-old Ra'Jah Mohamed, a student at Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School.

Mohamed, who is also president of the school's student body and identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community, says he had gone through the appropriate channels and was given the green light to host the 'Courage Across Canada' tour as part of the International Day of Pink.

It's a presentation that features an anti-bullying message, where participants share their personal stories. Hosted by Canada's Drag Race Season 2 champion Icesis Couture and competitor Suki Doll, it's the drag element that's made it a point of controversy.

"We were told that we were approved and we had several months to plan, then out of the blue, we get the notice that it was cancelled with less than a month until the event," Mohamed told CTV News.

“It was a shock, I was confused and upon asking I was told it was too political.”

Mohamed immediately took to change.org with a petition calling out the board for its about-face. In it he writes "Students from other boards were meant to attend the educational session about self-love and being your authentic self."

He was shocked when he was told the event was too political.

"It tells me that my identity's too political, that I'm too political, that my existence is political and I think how is it that just me existing, just me wanting representation to see myself, for my peers, for my community, how is that political, what makes it political and I think it's just fear, it comes down to fear,” Mohamed said.

“They are afraid of a minority of people complaining, complaining for various reasons but the most simple thing is homophobia.”

The sad fact is there is homophobia in the community, he said.

"I understand that drag is a polarizing subject but we cannot pander to a minority of people when the student voice, the student body, parents, community has made it clear they support this petition," Mohamed said.

As of Thursday, there were more than 1,800 signatures to Mohamed's petition.

Courage Across Canada Tour featuring drag superstars Icesis Couture and Suki Doll (International Day of Pink)

CTV News first met the Grade 11 student at the start of his petition but agreed to not publish anything while the process played out. Mohamed had been talking with the Rainbow District School Board and the board's superintendent and was hopeful the board might change its position.

"I was very hopeful because I thought there was no way that the school would, after 1,800 voices said they still wanted it, that they would cancel it,” he said.

“Clearly I was giving them a little too much credit. They don't have to listen to us. I would expect them to, I would hope that they would, maybe that's just my naivety but if we're being honest, Rainbow District School Board… they don't care."

Mohamed says the board has been inconsistent.

Rainbow District School Board said in a statement, dated last week to CTV News that the request to host the tour had only come to their attention Jan. 17.

"It was not forwarded for review, and, therefore was never approved before the actual planning for the event began," said spokesperson Nicole Charette in an email.

“Presentations in our schools are carefully considered before they are approved. This may include reviewing the proposed message and content and soliciting feedback from previous hosts of the proposed presentation.”

BOARD RECEIVES MANY REQUESTS

Charette said they receive many requests to host presentations or events each school year.

"Events must have an educational focus and be appropriate for educational settings,” she said.

“We have not had the opportunity to review this request for its educational component.”

After facing a couple of delays, the two sides met on Tuesday afternoon when Mohamed was told it would not be allowed on school property.

Mohamed said the decision came as a slap in the face when he was told the event was too "hyper-sexual."

"They're trying to call it a clerical error, that is throwing people under the bus that I can't even defend right now because they're not able to speak about it,” he said.

“It's difficult, it's inconsistent. There's no real protocol, nothing in writing. It seems they had a decision, they made up their mind and they ignored the student voice. I'm worried about a few different people. I don't want them to put themselves in any position that would harm them but at the same time I have to advocate for what is right.”

"Males in the LGBTQ community are some of the most at-risk people for suicide but those risks are decreased when you have community, you have support and representation just like this event would offer," he adds.

Sudbury all-ages Courage Tour event Feb. 10 at 4 p.m. at College Boreal. (International Day of Pink)

The Rainbow District School Board had a prepared statement for a news release once the meeting had finished. In it, the board writes, in part:

"Rainbow District School Board met with the organizer of the International Day of Pink. There is agreement that the board will focus its efforts on its existing events in support of students and will not participate in the tour. The organizer is currently considering a community-based event during the evening of Feb. 10."

It goes on to list their achievements in support of the 2SLGBTQ+ community.

A board employee with knowledge of the situation, who spoke to CTV News on the condition of anonymity, said she has never seen any individual school have to get approval in advance until now.

"I have never seen an individual school have to get an approval, we don't get approval for everything we hold. That would be a full-time job itself having to get approval all the time. Someone at the board would have to be saying 'yes or no', they don't ask us to get approval for every event we hold. I do feel like they're throwing the principal under bus, they're putting it as if she didn't follow protocol and that's not the protocol I've ever seen," she said.

CTV News went back to the board with a request for an interview. The board was also asked for clarification on whether it seeks approval for every event and if they referred to it as too "political" or "hyper-sexual."

INTERVIEW REQUEST IGNORED

The request for an interview was ignored. In a new statement, it wrote in part:

"The board's decision was based on educational content and our commitment to focus on our existing events including the Classroom Closet in just over two weeks and Free to Be Conference this spring, which provide full days of workshops with appropriate supports for students. Creating safe, accepting, and welcoming school environments guides our work in equity and inclusion."

It goes on to list its accomplishments in promoting diversity again.

CTV News reached out to the performers involved with the Courage Across Canada tour, Icesis Couture and Kimora Amour.

"We definitely, me and Kimora and our whole entire team, we stand behind them, it's very important and sad at the same time," said Couture.

"It's absolutely sad, we have to be here but I'm so happy that the students have come together and organized something so we'll still be able to reach them and make a little change," said Amour.

Rainbow District School Board office in Sudbury. Dec. 14/21 (Alana Pickrell/CTV Northern Ontario)

Amour was referring to Mohamed getting a post-secondary school in Sudbury, which volunteered to step up and offer its facilities for the students and those in need.

"We're just trying to make sure that the next generation of people within our community have that representation and can see themselves and understand that they have peer inclusion, they have support and we just want that to be the message that we send out," said Amour.

"We will continue to do everything that we are doing to be able to see each and every one of you," said Couture.

"WE WILL CONTINUE TO PUSH FORWARD'

"We will continue to push forward in this tour, we will do other years. Just hang in there, we love you, we support you, we see you, we appreciate all the effort that you're putting in for yourself, your community. We're so proud and honoured and it's people like them why we do this tour. It gets hard for us too, we have feelings as well and we're just trying to do something positive that changes the world but people like Ra'Jah keeps us going, it's so powerful and I think with the new generation – we're in good hands."

"Drag has always been a protest, it's always been standing up for what's right and I'm so proud of Ra'Jah for what they're doing. They're doing exactly what we need our next generation to do, which is stand up for themselves and to continue being amazing," said Amour.

The decision made by the Rainbow District School Board has elicited a strong response from several groups in the community, including Black Lives Matter Sudbury.

"This cancellation sends a clear message; that the Rainbow District School Board finds LGTBQIA+ rights controversial and that a message of self-acceptance is too political for the board."

"RDSB has put out many statements about the value of inclusion and diversity; this action is not in alignment with the values they espouse," said the Sudbury Workers Education and Advocacy Centre in a statement.

"Actions speak louder than words, College Boreal has said they care, they see my community in the way that it should be seen, in a celebratory way, in a way that respects all people. In a way that will accommodate and help out, that will show they do respect us, they listen to us and I'm so grateful to them, I was overjoyed when I heard and I'm so excited," said Mohamed. 

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