How ‘opt-in’ sex ed could impact Alberta youth, parents and schools

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Premier Danielle Smith's proposed new policies surrounding parental rights, transgender youth and pronouns is eliciting both approval and dismay from parents and educators. Sarah Komadina reports – Feb 1, 2024

As part of a suite of policy changes, Premier Danielle Smith said Alberta will require parental notification and an “opt-in” approach for any instruction that involves gender identity, sexual orientation or human sexuality.

“Currently in the Education Act, parents can opt out of formal instruction around human sexuality,” explained Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers Association.

What the premier announced yesterday is an opt-in process, which is a huge burden on schools and teachers who are already dealing with so much,” he said Thursday.

“We’re dealing with large class sizes, a lack of support for curriculum, a lack of supports for students with special needs, and now we’re going to add one more layer onto things that schools and students and teachers need to do? It just seems like there’s not a lot of thought into the unintended consequences of what was announced.”

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The opt-in requirement was part of a set of 10 policy changes impacting everything from minimum age requirements for puberty blockers and hormones to trans women competing in sports events.

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Some educators are worried that the policy change will see many youth simply miss out on important lessons on health, consent and relationship knowledge and skills.

“It is about health, things like pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, those are very important things for youth to learn. And there are totally age-appropriate ways to get this information across and it is the prime time to be talking to young people so they can be thoughtful about the decisions they make in the future,” said Pam Krause, president and CEO of the Centre for Sexuality.

Since the early 1970s, the centre has been providing sexual health education in Calgary area schools, teaching up to 10,000 youth a year.

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“From the beginning, our program has been comprehensive, so it certainly covers issues of sexuality, sex and, of course, gender and sexual orientation. But the real focus of the program, which makes it comprehensive, is around healthy relationships, consent, those sorts of things are integrated into the program,” Krause explained.

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She says the shift to “opt-in” instruction is “a very, very big deal.”

“The opt-out clause has, in our estimation, worked really well. If parents choose that their children are not going to be part of a sex ed program, that’s what happens and those youth are not in the classroom.

“With an opt-in, it puts a lot more pressure on teachers and it also puts a lot more pressure on parents to get these forms signed and it also puts a responsibility on youth sometimes if they’re literally having to take them home to get them signed.

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“The difficulty is it assumes that … parents will take the time to figure out how to do the opting in,” she added. “So many parents want their youth to learn about these topics and feel that it’s really, really important education.

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“The default just means that a whole swath of people are left out, whether the parents actually are going to consent or not.”

Krause is concerned about the administrative burden of “opting in” and how it might affect what’s taught — or not taught.

“They’re talking about changing it for every instance that sexual health education is being taught. So in our work, we teach four classes, so that would mean for each and every one of those classes, potentially, you’d have to have an opt-in.”

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During her news conference Thursday, Smith was asked about the administrative burden this “opt-in” approach could create.

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“I guess if teachers are indeed talking to kids about sex every single day, every day of the school year, than I guess this policy has demonstrated why we need to put it in place,” she said.

“But if, as I suspect, there’s structured education on structured days, than I don’t think it’s a hard shift for schools to say: ‘This is the day we’re going to be discussing issues of sexuality, sexual orientation and gender identity.’

“It shouldn’t be onerous. It actually should be fairly straightforward to be keeping parents in the loop on these issues.”

John Hilton-O’Brien, executive director of Parents for Choice in Education, gave Smith’s policy changes “a passing grade.”

“We didn’t get everything we asked for — or that we would have asked for had we been actually consulted. We’ve been asking, for instance, for some clarity around whether parents should be informed about their children taking part in sex education events in certain clubs … not a whisper on that.

“But the other things that she’s dealing with are pretty reasonable.”

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Parents for Choice in Education is an Alberta-based group that was started 12 years ago to advocate for “an excellent, quality-oriented, choice-driven education system which recognizes parental authority.”

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Hilton-O’Brien says there’s been an increase in parental rights groups across North America over the last several years.

“Parents are very concerned. At the same time, people in the educational establishment want more power for themselves and we’ve seen a lot of movement in this direction.”

He says Smith’s policy changes — particularly around parental notification and permission — will help restore trust in the public and Catholic education systems.

“The issue is going to be: will this create a burden on teachers? We don’t know the government’s plan is on that yet.

“Most teachers have established lesson plans if they’re not in their first year. They’re quite able to put together a form for the start of the year that says: ‘I’m going to address gender and sexuality in the class on these six dates. Here’s the lesson titles and the synopsis. Please send it back with a check with anything that you’re willing for your child to receive,'” Hilton-O’Brien said.

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But others worry the policy changes send a larger message that these topics are not OK to discuss.

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“These topics are embedded because these are the social commentary of the time,” Krause said. “And so every time something comes up — there might be something about a same-sex couple in a book — to get parental consent to be able to do that? Think about the impact.

“Teachers won’t know: ‘Is it OK if I let it slip under the radar?’ Most importantly: ‘What will happen to me?'”

Alex Marshall is a volunteer with Fyrefly, a non-profit organization that provides programs and services to support the LGBTQ2 community. She’s concerned the policy will lead to less representation of — and conversations around — queerness.

“If a teacher in Social Studies is doing a presentation and talking about discrimination … can a teacher now introduce topics about 2SLGBT2+ discrimination? Is that against this policy?

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“A teacher in English, talking about Romeo and Juliet, that’s talking about sexual orientation. It’s a straight relationship. It’s a heterosexual orientation. This policy is never going to stop that,” Marshall said.

“The only thing that’s going to be affected is maybe an English story that has a same-sex relationship. Now that teacher has to say: ‘I’m not allowed to talk about sexual orientation, parents have to opt-in to that. OK, I’m not going to use this book. So I’m never going to use resource that has anybody who is queer in any way, shape or form because now suddenly I have to worry about my job when I do that.”

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And, what about the ripple effect this has on students, Kraus asks?

“The other chill is all of the young people who are hearing this debate … not knowing if it’s safe to even talk about these issues, which they undoubtedly are exploring, whether they are gender diverse or not,” she said.

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“It just really shuts down that feeling that diversity and inclusion actually are things that matter and things that people should be taught.”

“The impact on gay-straight alliances, we’ve been through this in Alberta before. When it’s under the radar, when it doesn’t feel supported, again, that sends a message to youth: ‘I probably should just stay in the closet because this isn’t a safe space for me.’

“And so it’s a way to keep the population super marginalized,” Kraus said. “And that, for me, is devastating.”

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