‘Out of the blue’: Sask. school boards association calls for pause on new sex ed policy | Canadian

The Saskatchewan School Boards Association is calling on the provincial education ministry to put a hold on new policies dealing with sexual health education and parental consent for changing student names and pronouns.

Association president Jaimie Smith-Windsor said school boards were not consulted on the policies, much to their surprise.

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“These policy shifts came as a bit (of an) out-of-the-blue announcement to boards of education,” Smith-Windsor said.

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On Tuesday, Education Minister Dustin Duncan announced that Saskatchewan schools need to inform parents about sexual health education curriculum and that parents will have the option to decline their children’s participation.

He said schools will also need permission from parents or guardians to change “preferred names or pronouns” of students under the age of 16, and that school boards will also need to pause their involvement with third-party organizations connected to sexual health education as the province reviews educational resources.

Smith-Windsor said they got the media release at the same time as the public.

“It was very concerning that there was no consultation with boards of education. When we do policy best in Saskatchewan, it really benefits from a robust consultation, of bringing in experts, of ensuring that policy is grounded in solid research, ensuring that all stakeholders have a voice in the development of policy and really working towards collaboration as the go to process for developing these kinds of policy shifts.”

Click to play video: 'Sask. government introduces parental consent for sexual health education'

Sask. government introduces parental consent for sexual health education

She said boards are raising significant concerns regarding these new policies and whether or not there are legal or human rights implications.

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Duncan’s rationale for implementing these policies revolve around standardizing policies across the province, and making sure teachers aren’t put in difficult positions as they develop relationships with parents.

“Parent/guardian involvement is critical in every student’s education,” Duncan said on Tuesday. “Schools will continue to ensure safe learning environments where all students feel included, protected and respected.”

When asked if she foresees school boards going against what the ministry has dictated, Smith-Windsor said the association has reached out to Duncan and is calling for a pause on the implementation of these new policies.

“To do some of that work, to ensure safety of students, the policies of inclusion that boards have in place related to students, the parent engagement piece that boards have in policy is reviewed and fully understood for what it is, and certainly to understand the legal and human rights basis for this policy shift.”

Smith-Windsor said she is very interested to see what Saskatchewan’s children’s advocate has to say pending her review of these policies.

The Saskatchewan Advocate for Children and Youth, Lisa Broda, announced she would be reviewing the policies the day after Duncan’s announcement, noting she too wasn’t consulted about these changes.

Click to play video: 'Sask. government introduces parental consent for sexual health education'

Sask. government introduces parental consent for sexual health education

“We will also be reaching out to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission and looking forward to some guidance there,” Smith-Windsor said.

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She said this is about due diligence and putting student safety at the top of mind.

When asked if school boards have received any of the concerns or complaints that Duncan had mentioned as part of the grounds for the new policies, Smith-Windsor said she viewed the issue as one that had evolved from a “single or isolated incident.”

In June, the ministry suspended Planned Parenthood from presenting in schools after a student got a hold of a pamphlet separately from a classroom presentation that was described as including graphic sexual vocabulary.

Smith-Windsor said that she doesn’t think that single incidents are the best foundation for making new policy.  “We know that policy doesn’t happen at its best when it’s created in a vacuum or in a reactive way.”

She cited curriculum development as an example of a better approach is being: the process going into the continuous renewal is informed by experts, vetted through school boards and education sector partners, and has room for parents’ voices.

Click to play video: 'Saskatchewan’s new education policy allows parents to opt out of sex-ed, choose their child’s pronouns'

Saskatchewan’s new education policy allows parents to opt out of sex-ed, choose their child’s pronouns

Smith-Windsor said she was surprised that such a divisive and polarizing issue would come from the ministry two weeks before school starts, a time when school boards are normally discussing how to welcome students back into their schools.

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“Let’s focus on the kind of quality education that our students are expecting when they come in. Let’s make sure everyone feels like they belong, let’s provide for those opportunities for parent engagement.”

She said parental engagement is baked in to how schools in Saskatchewan do things, pointing to opportunities for parents to participate through organizations such as school community councils.

Smith-Windsor said an unfortunate result of these new policies is a false idea that schools are not to be trusted.

“It’s created dialogue that is creating a context of mistrust about what happens in our classrooms and what our students are experiencing and what our policies are, when they’re very transparent and readily available.”

Duncan’s response to questions about what happens if a child doesn’t feel comfortable coming out to their parents was that wrap-around services would need to be provided to get those kids to a point where they’d be comfortable coming out to their parents. Smith-Windsor said they’ve been advocating for wrap-around services for any student who needs them.

“School boards have been calling for wrap-around inter-ministerial multi-partner services delivered in schools for students for a very long time. This is not specific to students who identify as 2SLGBTQIA+. This is all students who require those wrap-around supports. This is an area that we continue to advocate for significant resources and investment in education, and to meet students where they’re at,” she said.

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Smith-Windsor also touched on the policy that bars third-party organizations such as OUTSaskatoon from giving sexual health education presentations in schools and said policies within boards of education are very specific to their communities, noting that partnerships are developed to help support the education system.

“I think the partnerships that have been developed that support curriculum development and those kinds of things really have been robust and have served Saskatchewan well.”

She said partners, parents and professionals play an important role in supporting student learning.

“When communities support education, kids do better.”

Smith-Windsor also said there also needs to be opportunity for student voices.

“Sometimes we do a disservice to youth by not inviting them into the conversation at the front-end.”

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She said that, in the current context, some students might not feel safe about joining such conversations, but added there’s an important opportunity to tell that story.

Leo Salamon, a 19-year-old Saskatoon resident tends to agree, saying they take issue with the part of the policy that would require teachers to get permission from parents if kids want to be referred to by a different name or pronouns.

“This puts children in danger,” Salamon said. “We know that trans kids have higher rates of homelessness, especially from being kicked out. We also know that trans people have a higher rate of suicide, of attempting and contemplating suicide. That rate goes up with discrimination, as well, as if they do not feel accepted.”

Salamon is nonbinary/transmasc and said schools need to be a safe space from some parents who may be transphobic.

“We can’t be putting kids at risk of violence.”

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Salamon said “protecting kids” is often a message that follows anti-trans legislation, but said that’s never the case.

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“It’s not, because trans kids are children, too, and we’re just putting them in danger of more violence to use the correct names and pronouns in school.”

Salamon also took issue with the language around the new policy using the term “preferred names and pronouns.”

“Me personally, and a lot of the trans people I know don’t like the language of ‘preferred,’ because my name is Leo, my pronouns are he/they. It’s not a preference, it makes me genuinely uncomfortable and upset when the incorrect name and pronouns are used.”

Salamon said cisgendered people’s pronouns aren’t considered their preferred pronouns, so why would that be the case for trans people.

“I don’t prefer these things, they are just correct and accurate. I don’t answer to my legal name because that’s not my accurate name, it’s not the name I use.”

They said the new policy could cause kids to remain closeted until the age of 16, noting that can be a difficult thing for a queer person to do.

“As someone who was in the closet, and as someone who knows many people who were closeted, like pretty much every queer person, it’s incredibly difficult. It’s hard on your mental health, it’s hard on your health in general if you’re not able to be the person you want to be.”

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Salamon said there are multiple stressors with school; going through puberty, going through high school, but now there’s an added stress for some kids that there is something within them that they can’t tell people unless they want to risk being outed.

They are concerned of the anti-trans legislation that is happening south of the border and Salamon thinks more anti-trans policies are on the way to Saskatchewan.

“This legislation to me is not a one-off. It demonstrates that our provincial government does not care for upholding the rights of trans people. If we’re going to go against human rights in this one instance, I don’t see why we wouldn’t continue doing that.”

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Salamon expressed disappointment in the provincial government and had hoped that Saskatchewan would uphold its deep queer history.

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“We had the first Pride Festival in Canada here, in this city.”

Salamon also said the queer community in Saskatchewan is vibrant, but is losing faith that the province will protect its people.

“We’re just people.”

Salamon said resources like OUTSaskatoon still exist for any kids who may have questions about their identity, and had some advice for those kids.

“You have to take your safety first. It’s unfortunately dangerous a lot of the time to go out and fight this. If you are in any situation where it is just not safe for you, please, please keep yourself safe.”

With the barring of third-party organizations from presenting material related to sexual health education, sexual assault centres are getting caught in the crossfire.

Amber Stewart, the executive director for the Battlefords and Area Sexual Assault Centre, said she was shocked, angry and confused by Duncan’s policy announcement.

“I’m scared for the kids in our school. I’m worried for our 2SLGBTQIA+ community members,” Stewart said.

She said there are a lot of unknowns at this point and that all of their prevention education at schools has been put on hold.

“I have full-time staff members that this is their job. Last year, we were in front of 3,500 kids… This is a big part of what we do.”

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Stewart said the language in the new policies are dangerous and that the same can be said about taking away the education component from kids.

“Our province has the highest rates of STI’s, high rates of unplanned pregnancy, high rates of interpersonal violence, and taking away education is not going to stop kids from having sex.”

She said the policies instead takes away tools from students on ways to say no or ways to stay healthy.

Stewart said she believes the situation has nothing to do with opening the door to parents, but instead is part of a “manufactured war on our queer/trans community.”

She said there’s nothing wrong with parental inclusion, noting she already receives a note from her kids’ school about what will be discussed when it comes time for the sex ed unit.

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“I have always had the option to opt out of sexual education for my children. This is not a new thing.”

She said not every parent is a safe person for these kids to be around, noting the rates of homelessness and suicide are higher with kids in the 2SLGBTQIA+ community.

“Parents are kicking their kids out because of who they identify as.”

Stewart said some teachers aren’t comfortable covering some of the topics that are given in their presentation, noting that’s why their service exists.

“They aren’t comfortable necessarily delivering this information, just as I wouldn’t be comfortable walking in and teaching Grade 9 math, that’s not my thing. But I can come in and talk about consent all day long.”

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