St. Albert’s Catholic school board fails to make the grade when it comes to protecting sexual and gender identities, says a noted sexual minorities scholar.
Kristopher Wells, faculty director for the Institute of Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta, published a report Tuesday through Public Interest Alberta that looked at sexual orientation and gender identity policies at four Alberta school boards.
Alberta Education Minister David Eggen called on boards to create regulations that supported gay-straight alliances (GSAs) and protected lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) rights last fall. Those rules have since been submitted for evaluation by the province by most boards. Eggen has yet to state publically which ones proved acceptable.
Wells said Public Interest Alberta wanted to look at these policies since the province has yet to say how it evaluated them.
Wells searched the websites of about a dozen Alberta boards for their policies and picked four to evaluate: Red Deer Public, Lethbridge Public, Grande Prairie and District Catholic, and Greater St. Albert Roman Catholic.
He then gave each a letter grade based on six criteria, including the presence of a standalone sexual orientation/gender identity policy, compliance with the law, support for trans students and protection of student privacy.
“Many of these policies are simply not making the grade,” he said at a press conference.
Red Deer got an “A+” as it had a standalone policy that explicitly stated that students could create GSAs (and call them that), celebrated the unique needs and contributions of LGBTQ people, and reinforced a student’s right to confidentiality when attending a GSA. It also appointed a “safe contact” person at each school for LGBTQ persons – a practice all schools should adopt, Wells said.
Policies at other schools had numerous problems. Some had no support for LGBTQ teachers and staff, for example, or lacked specific provisions for trans students and bathrooms. The result was a patchwork of standards that varied from board to board.
“Unequivocally, every student who walks through any school in this province should be entitled to the same supports, the same resources, the same services and same protections regardless of where they go to school,” he said.
While Wells initially gave St. Albert Catholic an “F”, he upped the grade to a “D” Wednesday after he learned that several elements he thought the board’s policy was missing were in fact found in two other parts of the board’s administrative manual he had missed.
St. Albert Catholic superintendent David Keohane sharply criticized Wells for this mistake.
“To make an assessment without considering (those other policies) or without even giving us a phone call – that’s what good researchers do – it’s very disappointing to us.”
Wells said that St. Albert Catholic’s policies restricted GSAs by requiring principals to approve the name of any club that addressed sexual identity, and did not indicate that students had the right to call their club a gay-straight alliance. (An appendix to the policy includes the text of Sect. 35.1 of the School Act, which says students have that right.)
Keohane said St. Albert Catholic students had formed GSAs and that had staff had no issue with them calling those groups by that name.
“If they want to name it that, we will name it that.”
The board’s policy also states that these groups are “normally” established at Grades 7 to 12, which Wells said was a possible age restriction, and required the principal to approve of any materials used by the group.
Wells noted that while the board’s policy does protect student confidentiality and features specific supports for trans students, it does not acknowledge LGBTQ identities, as it virtually never uses the words “lesbian,” “gay,” “bisexual,” “queer” or “transgender.” (“Gay” and “queer” are in a quote from the School Act, and “transgender” pops up a few times in an appendix.)
“If you can’t even say the words, how welcoming is your school district?”
There’s so much disparity in the quality of the policies out there now that the education minister should consider imposing a common policy for all schools, Wells said.
He called on boards to look to Red Deer as a model on how to get their policies right.
“It’s 2016. Nothing less than an A+ policy should satisfy parents and students.”