Interim staff

A decision by the York Region public school board to encourage discussion of sexual orientation, abortion and other moral issues in classrooms is dividing parents and education officials as the schools break for the summer recess.

It is similar to a case in British Columbia where the teachers’ federation, backed by provincial education minister, moved to introduce gay-positive materials into the school curriculum. The action generated a backlash from pro-family groups and has led to calls for the education minister’s resignation.

The controversy in York Region – just north of Toronto – centres on curriculum changes which are designed to update the public board’s family life and sexual education programs.

The changes, which were implemented in some schools in April, are included in the Sensitive Issues in the Classroom 1997 document, prepared by the York Region public board. They are aimed primarily at students in Grade 7 and above.

In dealing with such topics as abortion and sexual orientation, the updated curriculum encourages students to discuss these issues with parents out of respect for “personal value systems.” The curriculum also encourages a learning environment “which affirms the dignity and worth of every individual.”

The York Region board offers students and parents the opportunity to withdraw from certain classroom discussions if the subject matter violates a family’s religious or moral values.

While parents’ groups support these aims in principle, they charge that the board did not allow sufficient time to address some of their concerns. They believe the board acted with undue haste in updating the curriculum and that it attempted to bypass any objections to the proposed changes.

Much of the parents’ criticism centres on the family life/sex education curriculum’s treatment of the abortion issue. They say the guidelines are selective in their choice of reference material and that they omit valuable information that could benefit impressionable teenaged students.

In a letter to the York Region’s director of education, a coalition of parents said the board’s policy on sensitive issues lacks balance. In particular, the parents’ group charges that the curriculum trivializes the consequences of abortion and it does not give sufficient attention to abstinence as a safeguard against sexually transmitted diseases.

The group also criticized the curriculum for omitting any information on post-abortion syndrome, the abortion-breast cancer link and the medical risks of the abortion procedure.

“The release of this curriculum without changes, discounting abortion risks and consequences despite evidence to the contrary, exposes our children to avoidable medical risks,” the parents’ group says. “Doing so while in possession of such evidence to the contrary is negligent. The selection of references supporting one perspective on abortion while suppressing significant factors is both biased and irresponsible. We, as parents insist that his document be withdrawn until such time that the inherent biases have been removed, and until all of the risks have been properly explained.”

The parents argue that additional reference materials dealing with chastity, abortion’s harmful consequences and adoption should be made available so students can reach informed decisions about life and morality issues.

Gail Steward, a consultant with the York Region school board’s physical health and sex education department, said implementation of the updated curriculum began in April and will continue at different schools in September.

Steward said the board extended the consultation period for preparing the new curriculum after becoming aware of parents’ concerns.

“There was an advisory group established to assist the curriculum writing team in bringing forth these kinds of concerns,” Steward told The Interim. “Parents were represented on the advisory group and the group did reach a consensus before the guidelines were handed over to the writing team.”

Steward said the board is satisfied that parents’ concerns were addressed at that time.

However, Janet Smith of Kettleby, Ontario, one of the dissenting parents, disputed the board’s claim that consensus was reached over the sex education curriculum. Smith, who has a daughter in Grade 11 at a York Region public high school, said the board seemed unwilling to take the parents’ objections seriously.

“If the board really wanted parental input into this document, they would have mandated principals to send a draft home to every household,” she said “instead, we only heard about it late in the game when it was practically a fait accompli.”

Smith said a parent who was an original member of the consulting group refused to sign her name to the guidelines due to its failure to make meaningful changes or to address the traditional family viewpoint.