Sunday, October 4, 2015

Thorncliffe Park Sex Ed Protest Draws Responses From Several Educators

A month ago I posted about a speech given by Peel District School Board director Tony Pontes, stating his board's position on the updated Ontario Health and Physical Education curriculum. Peel, like Toronto, had been the focus of parent protests against portions of the curriculum dealing with Human Development and Sexual Health. Mr Pontes, whose speech was quoted in the Toronto Star, was adamant:
“We cannot — we will not — by action or inaction endorse discrimination,” said Pontes, who cited Ontario’s Human Rights Code as applying to people of all sexual orientation and gender identity. “Supported by legal opinion, bolstered by our core values, I would no more say yes to someone wanting a child excluded because of a discussion about LGBTQ than I would a discussion about race or gender.”
 And now, Toronto enters the fray.

The Toronto neighbourhood of Thorncliffe Park has seen, without a doubt, the highest concentration of parent protest against the curriculum. The first day of a five-day province-wide "strike" last spring against the curriculum saw a staggering ninety-percent of the student population absent from North America's largest K-5 school. While other jurisdictions, like Ottawa-Carleton, saw very little activity, Thorncliffe has remained the epicentre of the We Say No movement.

I blogged about the nascent protests there last March, and the leader of Thorncliffe Parents Association last May. At the start of the school year, TPA stepped up its protests by calling for parents in the community to keep their children out of school altogether. Absenteeism at the school was around half at the start of September 8th protest -- well below last spring's numbers -- and has since dwindled to 200 absent per day by the end of September.

 Photo: Michael Peake, Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network

In the early days of the school year children took classes on or underneath tarps in William Burgess Park, adjacent to the school. Within a number of days, these makeshift classes delivered by local women were moved into the nearby Jenner Jean-Marie Community Centre.

Photo: Bernard Weil, Toronto Star
Thorncliffe Park's principal Jeffrey Crane has recently given two interviews to media about the protest and the Thorncliffe Parents Association. The first was on the October 1st edition of CBC Toronto's Metro Morning with Matt Galloway. Mr Crane raises a number of concerns about the protest.

According to Mr Crane, members of TPA have told him the curriculum is part of a plan by Kathleen Wynne to indoctrinate Ontarians into becoming homosexuals. Other parents, he suggests, merely see the curriculum as age-inappropriate and are beginning to challenge the TPA's strategy. "These protesters are unreasonable -- I can't reach them. The majority of our population in Thorncliffe Park are just concerned parents. They worry about the things they heard." Mr Crane says that he has spoken to many groups of parents, trying to dispel myths about the HPE document. 

He is also very concerned about the quality of instruction children are receiving in the "home schooling group" set up by TPA. Press photos of "school in the garden," show that volunteer tutors are using Canadian Curriculum guides which are actually books of worksheets that most teachers would never touch, except for occasional practice in specific skills, like punctuation. As he points out, they're readily available at stores like Costco and are no substitute for proper instruction.

I'll go a step further. Any school like Thorncliffe has learners who have English as an additional language; learners who struggle with print; learners who are on the autism spectrum; learners with many complicated needs, some as yet unrecognized. Handing out work sheets to students who are using their backpacks as makeshift writing surfaces while sitting on a floor or staircase, overseen by untrained volunteers is reckless and irresponsible. Not only are these children likely not learning; some may find this form of instruction quite distressing. TPA, like other groups, has often claimed that "one size does not fit all," when referencing sex ed; yet they subject these young students to exactly that.

In a second interview, given to CTV News, Mr Crane elaborates on the homophobia in the protest, which has overwhelmed the discussion of the curriculum.

While there has been considerable blowback among the various groups protesting the curriculum, a quick scan of Thorncliffe Parents Association's Facebook page shows a preoccupation with references to gender identity and sexual orientation. As Mr Crane alludes, the group clearly has issues with LGBT teachers and consultants in the school. This particular post on their page makes that abundantly clear:

Posted to Thorncliffe Parents Association Facebook page. September 18, 2015.

From the post above to the TPA Facebook page. Spokesperson
Khalid Mahmood said he was not aware of this post, according to the Toronto Star.

Toronto Star education reporter Kristen Rushowey followed up on the Facebook post on October 2nd, the day after a planned province-wide school strike, coordinated by Canadian Families Alliance at network of anti-sex ed groups:
Khalid Mahmood, who has been at the forefront of the Thorncliffe protests and is a member of the parents’ association, said he was not aware of a Facebook post that raised concerns about gay teachers. The association is not upset about homosexual teachers in the school, but rather community agencies coming in to talk to the kids about equity and sexual orientation, he said.
Which doesn't explain the rather distributing post. As of this writing -- October 5th -- the graphic is still on the Thorncliffe page. Call it homophobia, or call it a bizarre preoccupation with all things homosexual; Mr Crane is quite right to suggest that the core group of parent protesters are in his words "unreasonable." To even suggest that a school or school board needs to disclose the sexual orientation of staff to a parent community is a few notches above unreasonable. 

Ms Rushowey's article profiles Thorncliffe teacher Susan Mabey who believes that homophobia is driving the protest:
“I have been on the front lines of the gay and lesbian movement since the early ’80s, and we fought long and hard for rights that are enshrined,” she said in an exclusive interview with the Star on Thursday, as 200 parents and children stood on the sidewalk out front of the school protesting the updated sex-ed curriculum.
“At Thorncliffe, we have toned down everything; we have been trying to be accommodating for too long,” she said. “There are gay teachers, there are gay students and transgender kids” in the school, as there are in society — and kids have questions about that, and about sex, about kissing and boyfriends, and the new curriculum gives them the facts.
Also on October 2nd, TDSB Director of Education Donna Quan released a letter affirming the curriculum. Echoing Mr Pontes' sentiments from a month ago, Ms Quan points out that "The Human Development and Sexual Health portion of this curriculum is just one of a number of topics covered within health and physical education." She also reiterates policy on opting out of curriculum:
For many years, TDSB schools have made accommodations for students based on their religious beliefs and practices, and we will continue to do so. However, we will not allow students to opt out of lessons or classroom discussions about gender identity or sexual orientation. As a public school board, we believe that it is important to foster greater understanding by students about these topics and to promote a learning environment that is consistent with the protections against discrimination found in the Ontario Human Rights Code. 
Thorncliffe Parents Association has vowed to continue its strike and home schooling cooperative during the month of October. Canadian Families Alliance has said more monthly Province-wide strikes are planned.

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