WATCH ABOVE: Critics say part of a Catholic Schools plan to implement gay-straight alliances will actually undermine the effectiveness of the groups. Fletcher Kent explains.
EDMONTON — Gay-straight alliances will soon be allowed in every Alberta school, but there are some concerns with how that will actually be done.
On Tuesday, the Alberta government passed legislation that mandates the creation of a GSA in any school where a student requests one. Click here to read Bill 10.
Despite Tuesday’s announcement, there are questions about how the new law will be enforced.
The LIFE Framework – a guideline for the creation of student groups on a variety of issues, including sexual orientation, gender identity and bullying -was recently developed by the Council of Catholic School Superintendents of Alberta.
The last paragraph states parents will also be contacted when student groups are formed. (The full LIFE Framework document is posted in its entirety below).
“Parents shall be informed when their child wishes to join a student group in which one of the stated purposes focuses on issues related to sexuality or sexual orientation,” the document reads.
Tony Sykora, president of the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association, describes LIFE as a “policy framework” that has been in the works since 2012. He says, when it comes to notifying parents, discretion is exercised.
“Legislation says that whenever matters of religion, patriotic education or sexual education are discussed in schools, parents must be notified,” he explains.
“I’m very confident that we have professionals within our school system that can act with discretion in regards to those … very sensitive instances.
“For those students that wish to – in a more discrete way – talk about issues of sexuality or other issues, chaplains and counsellors are at schools and these are trained people that do respond in very sensitive ways.
“The safety, health and welfare of kids is paramount.”
Kris Wells, the director of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta, says the stipulation in the LIFE Framework about notifying parents wouldn’t apply under the new legislation.
“This LIFE Framework is already out of date and out of touch with the post-Bill 10 reality,” said Wells. “It’s clearly been established that GSAs are non-curricular student clubs and parental notification is not required to attend, just like any other student club in a school.
“In fact, in this case, parental notification can place students in great harm who are, in essence, outed to their families who may be their biggest source of discrimination.”
Wells says the Alberta Teachers’ Association has a clear policy stating teachers cannot discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender orientation.
“If a student were forced to have their parents notified to attend a GSA and something were to happen to that student, this would be a case of gross negligence and the school board would be completely liable.”
When asked about the issue on Thursday, Education Minister Gordon Dirks said: “there is no requirement in Bill 10 requiring parental consent for children to attend a GSA.” However, when asked if he would stop a Catholic school from notifying a parent, he replied: “I’m not going to comment on any hypothetical.”
He added he hasn’t spoken with any school trustees since the bill was passed.
“I’m not commenting on any document from any other organization, I’m simply saying that the law is very clear. Parental consent is not requirement in Bill 10 and the expectation is that students who want a GSA will be able to have a GSA, end of story.”
Dirks said Wednesday the province will communicate with all school boards when it comes to the implementation of Bill 10, “to make sure they understand fully what the nature of the legislation is.”
“The bill will be proclaimed, I believe, as of June 1 so it gives us a time now, a couple months, to communicate with school boards and principals and staff to make sure everybody understands exactly what the expectations of the bill are,” Dirks said.
WATCH BELOW: Extended interview with Dirks on Bill 10
When it comes to GSAs, Sykora says any student can approach a staff member, teacher or principal to request a support group.
“A discussion would occur between those students and those staff members to determine what the scope of that particular support group would be, what the name of the group would be, and to monitor it to find out whether it’s meeting the needs of students.”
In a statement, the Association said it will work with the legislation and make sure all students continue to feel welcomed.
“We believe that Catholic Schools will be able to work with the legislation passed in the legislature on March 10, 2015. Every child is a child of God who is valued and respected and every child will continue to have a place where they feel welcome as an important member of our community.
Alberta’s Catholic Schools have always supported our most vulnerable students as evidenced with our Safe and Caring Learning Environments policy.
We anticipated the amendments in Bill 10, and accordingly, our Catholic superintendents proactively began to develop the more comprehensive LIFE Framework – a guideline for student advocacy, peer support, or counselling groups. As a result, every student will have a safe place where they feel supported. We will be able to help all students who are struggling.
The amendments allow local schools and school boards the flexibility needed to respond to students’ needs at a local level. The legislation now addresses all vulnerable students, something our organization has been advocating since the Bill was initially introduced.”
Father Stephen Penna, an educator with the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton, says Catholic schools are already inclusive, safe places for children.
“We didn’t need a legislation to call us to do what we’ve always been doing.”
The Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) wants the government to implement ministerial orders to provide clarity around the implementation of Bill 10. It says the orders will also protect teachers who will be facilitating GSAs in schools.
“It has become very clear in the last few days, that government, boards and many individuals have some widely divergent views on what Bill 10 will mean in practice,” said ATA President Mark Ramsankar.
“The principals, teachers and students who will be involved need to know very clearly where they stand.”
The ATA specifically wants clarification about preventing disclosure of a student’s participation in a GSA (or similar group) and confirming the right of the student(s) who requested the GSA (or similar group) to decide the name of that group. Click here to read the full ATA request.
Opposition parties are also waiting for more clarification.
“We already have a very high queer student population of homeless people so we don’t want to be adding to that,” said Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman.
“It’s quite common that once kids come out to their parents or they get outed, and it doesn’t work out – the parents kick them out or the kids leave – 40 to 50 per cent of homeless kids on the street are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and I don’t want to see any more of that.”
She said she will ask the education minister to clarify the parental notification issue.
“Bottom line is we needed to create a safe space in schools for kids,” Blakeman said Wednesday.
Blakeman’s private member’s bill was scrapped after the PC government introduced its own bill.
Throughout the GSA debate, the Edmonton Youth Council has been encouraging young people to share their stories and contact their MLAs. It says it will continue to do that.
“We will be ensuring the voices of youth will be heard throughout that process,” says chair Claire Edwards.
While she was thrilled about the amendment to Bill 10 and its passing, she wants to make sure students requesting GSAs in rural and religious schools are not shut down.
“I wonder how the province will be able to enforce it,” Edwards says. “I’m just a little bit worried and sceptical about how that will be done.”
With files from Kendra Slugoski and Kent Morrison, Global News