The value of people getting involved to effect positive change at the grassroots level has been demonstrated once again, this time by a group of family activists in the Durham region, just east of Toronto.
Citizens were prompted to action by an explicit sex education program directed at public school children with severe disabilities. One observer described the drawings used in the LifeFacts Sexuality program as similar to what one would find scrawled on the walls of an inner-city public washroom.
The good news is that after interventions led by the Durham Family Action Council, the superintendent of curricula for public schools in the region has made a commitment to seek out and implement more appropriate materials in time for the start of the next school year this September. This is in spite of the fact that the Durham Board of Education officially decided (by a slim 6-5 vote) to keep the program in the system.
“It’s a compromise,” said Durham Family Action Council member Carol Switzer. “It’s a victory in the sense that (LifeFacts Sexuality) has been red flagged and will be replaced. But if the (school board) vote had gone the other way, it would have been thrown out immediately.”
Activists also won a commitment that all parents will have to see proposed sex education materials before their children do. “We’re happy about that,” said Switzer.
The saga follows several other similar sex-related controversies that have dogged the Durham school system. In 1992, parents protested a series of National Film Board sex-ed videos that they felt promoted homosexuality, incest and sexual activity in general. In 1996, they protested again when the Reduce the Risk program was used as a resource to teach students in Grades 11 to 13 about sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS.
The latest episode began when substitute teacher Dianne Robertson was called in to teach a class of special needs students between 14 and 21 years old at Pickering High School. Robertson objected to the planned lesson for the day, which included the LifeFacts program. Instead, Robertson taught a chastity lesson.
“It used to be that in the sex-ed programs, the exercises were subtly contrived to elicit discussion on homosexuality,” said Switzer. “We didn’t like that either, but there’s nothing subtle about this. It’s an in-your-face sex-ed document.”
Switzer added that abstinence is given just token recognition in the LifeFacts program. “The parents get abstinence, the kids get condoms. If you call (the school board) about their abstinence program, they don’t have one. They might have a ragged, tattered pamphlet off in a corner saying that abstinence is okay. The rest is about how to get your condoms on.
“Condoms are in the driver’s seat, while homosexuality and bi-sexuality are on board. Any kind of activity is permissible and safe, as long as you use a condom.”
Later attempts by Robertson and Switzer to obtain copies of the LifeFacts program were met by a roadblock. They were told they would have to sign a letter saying no one else could see the material and none of it was to wind up in the media. They refused to sign, and were forced to go through Freedom of Information Act channels to finally get a chance to review the materials – which mysteriously failed to include a previously seen depiction of two men naked together in bed.
Switzer suspected the kit was tampered with.
“There’s so much secrecy surrounding this, it’s unbelievable,” said Switzer. “They’re hiding something. That’s the only conclusion someone can reach.”
“When this came to light, (school officials) knew parents would be screaming, so they said, ‘This is just to protect children from predators.’ But there’s not a word to speak of streetproofing,” she added. The children “are taught how to masturbate, put condoms on and engage in foreplay. When they see pictures of men and women copulating, the euphoric effects of orgasm are described. How does this concern streetproofing? Where are the visual ‘no’ signs to indicate what behavior is inappropriate?”
A copy of the LifeFacts program reviewed by The Interim indicates it is published by James Stanfield and Company Inc. and includes “essential information about life … for persons with special needs.” The authors are James Stanfield EdD and Nancy Cowardin PhD.
The authors make it clear that slang terms for sexuality will be used because they “often help to clarify terminology and to desensitize students to sex education.” As well, “intercourse is described in homosexual as well as heterosexual terms” and “homosexual feelings and behavior are mentioned throughout the lessons.”
It discusses “options” for two people who have an attraction to each other: “kiss, neck and pet, rub or masturbate, sexual intercourse.” Masturbation is seen as “normal and healthy sexual behavior.” It urges teachers to “emphasize the positive aspects of sexual intercourse as strongly as the risks.”
Planned Parenthood resource
The authors note that certain lessons “may be supplemented by a guest speaker from Planned Parenthood” or the health department. “Birth control is easily available for adults,” it adds, stressing that “mentally handicapped teens are often quite limited in choosing methods and modes of sexual expression. Homosexual relationships may be the only available avenue for expression.”
Switzer said LifeFacts is not now in circulation in Durham public schools and teachers are being discouraged from using it. But none of that would have happened if a concerned teacher and the Family Action Council hadn’t gotten involved. “It would still be under cover and parents wouldn’t have known.”
But problems persist in other areas.
Several parents in Brampton, Ont. took their children out of a Grade 5 class at Kingswood Drive Public School recently after a teacher’s explicit talk about sex. Teacher Peter Rowan was reported to have described gay and lesbian sex acts, sexually transmitted diseases and condom use. He was removed from the classroom, but returned two days later after a hearing. School board officials said Rowan would be more intensely supervised in the future. A teacher’s union official, meanwhile, said Rowan committed an error in judgment.
Some parents continued to keep their children out of his class, however. Peel District School Board officials later agreed to permanently move six students to another Grade 5 classroom.