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Walk through the halls of Sisler High School, and you may see pictures of a colourful character with rainbow-striped fur and a purple bill and tail.
He’s Percival the Platypus, and while he’s imaginary, what he represents is very real.
Percival is the student-drawn mascot of Sisler’s diversity group, DIS for DAT – which stands for Diversity In Sisler for the Dignity and Acceptance of all Teens. The group is Sisler’s version of a Gay-Straight Alliance, the name for student groups that stand up for safer and inclusive schools for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) community.
Many high schools in the Winnipeg School Division have GSAs or diversity/equity clubs of some kind. While DIS for DAT supports LGBTQ students, the group is about even more than that, says Grade 10 student Brittany Perkins, the group’s co-leader.
“A lot of what we are about is against bullying against anyone who’s different. It might be because someone is LGBT, or to do with racism, or something else,” says Brittany. “We want to help all students feel safer at school, and know they have somewhere to go if they need someone to talk to.”
A poster featuring Percival sums up the group’s main message: “It is not OK that a Sisler Spartan is hurting inside. You can help. Reach out – say hi – and show you care,” it reads.
The group creates awareness around the school that being different is OK – and bullying is definitely not OK. Last year they ran a campaign to get teachers to put up “ally” stickers, which indicate to all students that the teacher is available to students who need someone to talk to about problems they may be having.
“Students know that if they see that ally sticker on the teacher’s door, you know you can trust them,” says Brittany.
Last year the group worked to get a new gender-neutral washroom opened up in the school this fall, which will give students a place to feel safe and free from the fear of bullying, Brittany says. And the group also runs fundraisers to help out in the community. Last spring they donated more than $200 worth of school supplies to the N.E.E.D.S. Centre of Winnipeg (Newcomers Employment and Education Development Services).
Giving back helps others see that students who are part of GSAs are “just normal people helping the community,” says Greg Shedden, Sisler’s Social Sciences Department Head and staff leader for DIS for DAT.
Mr. Shedden was instrumental in getting the group started a few years ago, and remains a valuable ally for students. A question box where students can drop off notes anonymously hangs outside his office.
“Everybody should feel safe and happy at school. I couldn’t stand by and watch my kids be unhappy. It’s just not who I am,” he says.
“We reach out to people, and tell them we’re all normal, good people, just trying to live our lives in happiness. We want everybody to be treated fairly and equally.”