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Waterloo school board says decision to cut discussion about transgender fiction driven by concern for harm and legal liability

The sign in front of the Waterloo Region District School Board's Education Centre. Kevin Nielsen / Global News

The Waterloo Region District School Board says it shut down a controversial discussion at last week’s meeting  to avoid potential liability under the Ontario Human Rights Code.

In a statement released on Tuesday morning, it said it is not posting video of the school board meeting to reduce “harm to WRDSB students, staff and community, and reduce its legal exposure.”

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During the meeting on Jan. 17, Carolyn Burjoski, who has been teaching English for the board for over two decades, appeared as a private citizen. She noted the board had sent teachers a lengthy list of books and resources for transgender awareness week.

“Some of these books are a positive addition because they show diverse families and represent a variety of ethnicities, however, I am very concerned that some of the resources in our elementary school libraries are inappropriate for young children,” she told the board.

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She specifically discussed a book called Rick by Alex Geno, suggesting the book might be asking children to think of sexuality earlier than needed.

“They are children. Let them grow up in their own time and stop pressuring them to be sexual so soon,” Burjoski said. “In fact, some of the books filling our libraries make it seem simple or even cool to take puberty blockers and sex hormones.”

That was when she was initially cut off by Board Chair Scott Piatkowski.

“I’m just getting a little concerned that your content may be problematic,” he said. “I’m not sure exactly where you’re headed but I would caution you to make sure that you are not saying anything that would violate the Human Rights Code.”

Burjoski denied this and moved on to discuss another book about a girl who later identifies as a boy named Shane.

“Shane takes puberty blockers and is now excited to start testosterone. The doctor states that this hormone mixture will leave Shane infertile in the future. Shane’s response is ‘it’s cool.'”

The book “does not take into account how Shane might feel later in life about being infertile,” she said, adding, “This book makes very serious medical interventions seem like an easy cure for emotional and social distress and…”

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That was when she was cut off a second time by Piatkowski.

“I’ve never pointed out that the Ontario Human Rights Code includes gender identity and gender expression as (grounds under which) discrimination (could be claimed), and I am concerned that your comments are in violation of that so I’m ending the presentation,” he said.

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The committee held a vote whether to back his decision. It came out in favour, 6-4, including a vote from Piatkowski.

The school board issued a statement last Thursday, which included an apology for the teacher’s conduct.

“We would like to express our deep regret for any harm caused to the transgender community,” the apology read.

“As a school board, we are guided by the Ontario Human Rights Code and committed to doing our best so that all students are affirmed in their identity and see themselves reflected in their learning environment. The Board is committed to upholding the values and principles set out in Board’s Equity and Inclusion Policy 1008 and the Board’s Human Rights Policy 1017. The Board is committed to providing a safe, inclusive environment free from inequity, discrimination and harassment.”

The following day, Burkowski posted a video to Twitter,saying she had been assigned to work from home.

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“The following morning, HR informed me that I was Immediately assigned to home, pending a formal investigation. (I am) banned from contacting my colleagues and students,” she said.

“I have been silenced and punished. Meanwhile, board members have taken to radio, television, social media to grossly misrepresent my remarks.”

Global News reached out to Piatkowski for comment but he said he would not provide any further comment, pointing to other interviews he has given.

This week’s board meeting was also to feature delegates discussing the issue of LGBTQ2S in school. The board has yet to post video of it online.

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