Three years ago, in 1982, a large number of parents and parent groups approached the Toronto School Board about its sex education programme. Some of the materials recommended in the Board’s guidelines, these parents felt, do not reflect community standards of sexual morality. The message that seems to come across is that sexual morality is purely a matter of personal choice. In sexual matters, anything goes, as long as you are sincere.
The film, Taking Chances, was named in particular. The objective of the film is to lead young people into “responsible sexuality” – that is, into using birth control. “It reminded me of a life-style commercial for beer,” said one of the parents, Lynne Lake. “Just as commercials show scenes of young people having a good time to suggest how much fun you can have if you only use a particular brand of beer or cigarettes, this film seemed to be saying that you could have a wonderful time at parties and dances, and boyfriends galore, if you only use birth control.”
What did these parents want? They wanted the Toronto Board to set up a mechanism that would enable parents to review the materials presented to their children in the public schools. In particular, they wanted veto power over the use of materials whose content contradicts their own moral standards.
How did the Board respond? It came back with a counter proposal. Dodging the issue of parental review, the Trustees announced that they themselves would set up a committee to review the Board and Ministry guidelines for sex education. They would, however, keep in touch with the parents who had taken the time and effort to approach them. Catherine Bolger, of Parents for Responsible Education, was chosen as a representative from the parents who would be acceptable to both the parents’ groups and the Board.
The Board proceeded to set up a Staff Advisory Committee to review current guidelines for Family Life and Sex Education. Over the next two years, the Committee met a number of times to hammer out a list of recommendations. Not once, however, was Mrs. Bolger informed of their meetings or invited to attend in spite of the Board’s promise that she would be. Her own efforts to find out when the Committee was meeting were unfruitful, since not even Board members were told when the meetings were held.
Finally, in November 1984, the Advisory Committee’s recommendations were made public in a draft Report. The parents who had approached the Board two years earlier were aghast to discover that many of the members of the Committee were the same educators who had formulated the current sex education programme in the first place. They were the same people who had compiled the Board’s resource lists and recommended the very materials the parents were objecting to. In other words, the people who were supposedly reviewing the choice of materials had themselves chosen the materials.
Obviously, this Advisory Committee was not an unbiased, objective group. Moreover, a number of its members were also affiliated with Planned Parenthood, one of the most vigorous promoters of the “sex as merely recreation” approach to sex education. To many parents, knowing that PP executives are reviewing your sex education programme is more alarming than reassuring.
The Advisory Committee met with representatives of various organizations who became known as the Reference Committee. It lost credibility too, however, when it was discovered that, of its two parent representatives, one was actually a sex educator and the executive director of SIECANN (Sex Information and Education Council of Canada), a group that works hand-in-glove with Planned Parenthood and shares its philosophy. Parents were outraged that a SIECANN executive was listed simply as “a parent,” with no concern about the conflict of interests involved. How a professional sex educator was supposed to represent parents to the professional sex educators was a problem the Advisory Committee apparently overlooked.
Finally, in writing the draft Report, the two Committees consulted with certain organizations. Here their bias showed plainly. First of all, they invited a delegation from Planned Parenthood’s centre for adolescents, “The House.” Then they heard from two homosexual-rights groups, the Gay Community Council, and Lesbian and Gay Youth Toronto. These groups urged that ex education curriculum guidelines be changed to recognize homosexuality “as a valid lifestyle.” Since some parents would abject to that, the Committee said in its draft Report that “there will need to be some educating of parents.” Or, it asked, should such curriculum changes be implemented “quietly”? Finally, the Committees heard presentations by two psychologists considered authorities on homosexuality, whose names were recommended by the homosexual rights delegations.
No other organizations were consulted during the writing of the draft Report. Summaries of these meetings were included in the Appendices. Strangely enough, several months later, after public hearings on the draft Report, the summaries were dropped and did not appear in the final Report. Also, Dr. Sylvia Santin, of the Family Life Office of the R.C. Archdiocese of Toronto, was invited to address the Committees. The final Report thus gives the impression of a more balanced consultation process. However, like other changes made between the draft Report and the final Report, the difference seems to be cosmetic only.
Values up for grabs
The two committees drew up a list of 28 proposals which they presented to the Board’s School Programmes Committee. In February and June of 1985, the Programmes Committee held public hearings, first on the Draft Report and then on the Final Report. Some of the parents who had instigated all this three years earlier came to speak and to submit briefs on the proposals.
Many of these parents simply reiterated their general concerns about sex education. Lynne Lake pointed out that some of the people writing sex education materials have affiliations with pornographic magazines like Playboy, Penthouse and Forum. She gave documentation showing that a good number of people whose books and pamphlets appear over and over again in the Board’s reference lists for sex education, for example, sit on the editorial board of Forum magazine. How can these people’s writings for the schools possibly reflect the view of sexuality most parents want their children to learn?
Catherine Bolger noted that to consider sex education as a form of health education is a contradiction. Sex education programmes are notorious for omitting or downplaying the health risks of unrestrained sexual activity. Early sexual promiscuity has been linked to cervical cancer in teens; the Pill and the IUD have serious side effects; sexually transmitted diseases are rampant and some are incurable, and on and on. Do the smiling young people in films like Taking Chances tell students this side of the sexual revolution?
Dr. Sylvia Santin said her main concern is the lack of values in most sex education materials. “The lack of values itself implies a position,” she told The Interim. It implies that values are up for grabs, that any choice is acceptable for the individual who chooses. Sex educators fool themselves if they think what they teach is neutral because they tell kids to make up their own minds. What they are actually teaching is a philosophy in itself, the philosophy of moral relativism. The message that comes through is that there are no objective moral standards governing sexual behaviour.
A large number of educators, religious leaders, and others from the community attended the public hearings. The Committee’s 28 proposals gave them plenty to talk about. One of the recommendations was that sex education be integrated as much as possible into all subject matters, such as Social Studies, Science and English and not restricted to Family Studies and Physical and Health Education. Another was that sex education be made compulsory for the Senior Division, as it already is for grades K-9. A third recommendation was that “sexual orientation” be included in the Ministry guidelines for grades 9-12. The final one was that the Board draw up a list of approved medical and social agencies to which teachers could refer students for confidential sexual counseling (that is, without parental knowledge or consent).
This last recommendation drew, perhaps, the most heated opposition. No age limit was given, so this proposal opened the door for teachers to refer children to outside agencies, without involving their parents, whether they are seven or 17. The untenability of such a proposal was well put by Sue Careless, a parent. “How ironic,” she commented, “that care is taken over parental consent for zoo trips, but would not be required for counseling leading to an abortion or the reinforcing of homosexual behaviour.”
Worse than ironic, it is illegal. Parents are legally responsible for their children while they are minors. If a child were referred to an outside agency by a teacher without parental knowledge, and some kind of harmful consequences ensued, who would be held responsible? In accepting this proposal, Careless argued, “the Board would be legally and morally overstepping its mandate and could be challenged in a court of law.”
Worse than illegal, it is harmful, for both the student and his family. For the student, brief encounters with agencies may not be medically safe. Without parental involvement, full medical records are lacking, which could radically affect what treatment is prescribed.
For the family, the proposal seems to assume that families cannot cope, that they cannot rise to meet a crisis. It deprives the student’s family of the opportunity to work through his problem with him. “The worst thing in the world,” Careless argued, “is not that my children might need some form of psycho-sexual counseling, but that my husband and I would not be at their side when they needed us most.”
If that were not enough, the Advisory Committee showed its true colours by the range of agencies it suggested. In its draft Report, the only agencies listed were Planned Parenthood (and its centre “the House”), SIECANN. The Department of Public Health and the STARR theatre troupe (Students Talking About Responsible Relationships), all of which share the same general “anything goes” philosophy of sexuality. It was only after the first public hearings, when many people protested their one-sidedness, that the Committee included Catholic Family Services, Jewish Family and Child Services, the Family Services Association and Birthright in its final Report.
Parents’ rights ignored
The upshot of all this was that, at its second public hearing, the Programmes Committee voted to pull all proposals related to three of the controversial areas (the addition of a compulsory education for the Senior Division credit in sex, the inclusion of “sexual orientation” in the curriculum, and confidential referrals), for a total of eight proposals. The Committee recommended that the eight be sent to the Director of the Board for review. The Director will study them further, confer with lawyers, and submit a report by the Board within the next few months. The rest of the proposals, after approval by the Board, go to the Ontario Ministry of Education.
All in all, the parents and groups who addressed the Committee gained no real victories, but they did blunt the edge of defeat. They had come to request a hand in the choice of the materials used in their children’s sex education classes but the Advisory Committee had instead substituted its own agenda. All the public managed to do was to persuade the Programmes Committee to pull out some of its more controversial proposals temporarily, at least, until the Director’s report.
The more radical of the Trustees on the Programmes Committee voted to approve all the proposals. Although they were temporarily reined in, they are still straining at the bit. Their attitude toward parents’ rights is reflected in a comment made during the public hearing. Regarding referrals of children without parental knowledge, Trustee Doug Little said, “If it isn’t legal, we ought to find a way to make it legal.”
If any doubt remains about the attitude of many Board members, the final episode on this drama gives further evidence. At the second public hearing, on June 20, parents and the public were reassured by the Programmes Committee that the eight controversial proposals would be sent to the Director for review. But a week later, when the Programmes Committee’s Report came before the full Board, the story took a sudden twist. Near midnight, after the public had gone home, the Trustees got round to voting on the Report. Two member of the Board’s NDP caucus moved to amend the recommendation regarding proposal 21, the one about “sexual orientation.” They moved that it be taken off the list of proposals going to the Director and put on the list of proposals that were approved. Since the last election, the NDP caucus has had enough numbers to control the outcome of most votes, so when the amendment was put to a vote, it was carried.
Trustee David Stevenson was dismayed over the actions of the NDP caucus. “What upset me so much,” he said, “was that at the Programmes Committee meeting, because there were so many parents objecting, the Trustees who were there agreed to review proposal 21. They made the parents think that it would be sent to the Director. Then, when 21 came before the entire Board a week later, no one was there except the Trustees – the press and the parents had left. The NDP caucus said, in effect, let’s not review it, let’s approve it. It’s really, I think, a slap in the face to parents.”
“Unfortunately,” Stevenson concluded, “right now, what the Toronto Board does, doesn’t come down to what the parents want, it comes down to what the NDP caucus wants.”
What can parents and other concerned individuals do now? A full six of the proposals which were approved by the Board recommended ways for Toronto schools to inform and involve parents in sex education programmes. I suggest we take these proposals for all they’re worth.
Become informed on your own first. Then have your school schedule parent meetings, as the proposals recommended. Go to them. You may not be able to change the mind of an ideologically-committed sex educator, but you may be able to inspire other parents to analyze and criticize materials more effectively. And, as more parents become informed of the humanistic, individualistic values that shape the content of most sex education materials, you may together be able to have an impact on what is taught in your school to your children.