Sunday, July 29, 2018

Sex Ed: Private Lessons

Four weeks into the Ford government in Ontario, it's been hard to read precise meaning into official pronouncements on the Education file.

Perhaps because very little thought has been put into them.

At first, Education Minister Lisa Thompson appeared to walk back a repeal of the Human Development and Sexual Health curriculum, saying that consent and "gender appreciation" will be taught; although  the latter is not in the curriculum. She also reassured reporters that the Ministry will be looking carefully at a section on "developing sexual relations," which also doesn't exist. Thompson's parliamentary colleague Lisa McLeod fielded questions in the House, prompting more confusion while the Education Minister was out of town. Deciding to do her own stunts, Minister Thompson faced the media for the first time in days with the assurance that students would be taught according to a 2014 curriculum -- which also does not exist.

Deputy Premier and former Tory leadership contender Christine Elliot attempted a rescue mission: "The requirement is that the [1998] curriculum be followed but, of course, there’s lots of student questions that come to teachers every day and, of course, a teacher is able to have a private discussion with a student to answer their questions."

This, of course, is all kinds of wrong. Teachers and union leaders have spoken out against this proposed practice. There have been calls to the Ontario College of Teachers for a response:

Silver lining: Mark this down as the only moment in eight years when Ontarians opposed to the curriculum and those in favour found common ground.
As absurd as the Deputy Premier's proposition sounds, it underscores how critically misunderstood the curriculum is, and why it is so important that we teach it to all students.

Let's Talk About Consent

Perhaps the most under-discussed item in the 2015 curriculum is that of consent. In the era of #MeToo, we are in the midst of a rethinking of relationships in every aspect of life, including schooling, and it's a been very public conversation -- which is why it may be working. Interestingly, the topic of consent in the Ontario health curriculum was brought to the fore by two young women, middle-schoolers Tessa Hill and Lia Valente, who produced the 2015 film Allegedly: Rape Culture in our Society as a school project.

While others were protesting the impending release of the 2015 curriculum, Lia and Tessa organized a petition in support of it, which garnered over 40,000 signatures, as well as an assurance from then-Premier Kathleen Wynne that consent would be part of the curriculum. The announcement gave Charles McVety of Canada Christian College, a new talking point -- that young children were being taught to consent to sexual advances of adults. Quoted in an article by the Toronto Sun's Joe Warmington, Mr McVety had this to say: 

“We abhor the premier announcing that Ontario’s teachers will be forced to teach little children how to give permission for that child to engage in sex” and “I don’t think it is legal to advise a child before the age of 16 on how to give sexual consent.
“To do so would be aiding and abetting a criminal activity, a child under 16 having sex.”
Of course, Mr McVety is talking nonsense. Consent, as taught to primary students, is very different from what is taught to students in intermediate grades, or secondary grades. However, if we do not teach children at a very young age that they have the right to enforce their own boundaries and the responsibility to respect other people's, we lack the foundations for later discussions, which can include sexual consent. It's not a conversation that should be delayed, or hidden from view.

Which brings us to a recent student-led protest in defense of the curriculum, March for our Education -- SAVE SEX ED, T&R. Co-organizer Rayne Fisher-Quann delivered an open letter to Premier Doug Ford:

My sister needed that curriculum when kids spent two years bullying her for her sexuality. They grew up thinking that being gay was wrong, and our school board never taught them otherwise.

I can’t even count the number of non-binary and trans friends who needed that curriculum so they could have given a name to what they were feeling so much earlier - so that they wouldn’t have felt alone and confused and scared for so many years of their lives.

You know who else needed that curriculum? The two hundred and seventy-five thousand Ontarian teenagers who were cyber-bullied in 2015. How could a curriculum created before MySpace possibly teach them anything they needed to know about the Internet?

I can go through my blocked list on instagram and show you exactly 284 boys who needed that curriculum to teach them the meaning of the word “no”. If that’s not enough for you, follow me down the street for an hour, and I’ll show you about 10 more. The first time I was sexually harassed by a classmate was in grade seven, and if you’d asked 12 year old Rayne what she thought, I’m sure she would have wished we’d learned about consent a little bit earlier, too.

So now we return to the Deputy Premier's preposterous idea that discussions that exceed the boundaries of the 1998 curriculum should be held in private. Not only is stigmatizing for students and risky for teachers; it prevents other students from hearing what needs to be said aloud. Imagine a classroom space in which young women like Rayne can share their truth. Where others can listen and relate, perhaps sharing their own stories. Where other still can re-examine their own behaviours and relationships.

What Ms Elliot, Ms Thompson, Mr Ford and others need to understand is that the outsourcing of consent solely to parental discussion at home, or private conferencing at school, means that many children who need to hear the stories of Rayne and her friends never will.


Tuesday, July 24, 2018

"But what about the Muslims?" Scapgoating Immigrants and People of Colour

About ten years ago, I was working in the library of a middle school when I was pulled into a conversation with a fellow teacher and an administrator. The former had told the latter that my library was in possession of a title that might not be appropriate for adolescent readers. I presume the purpose of the meeting was to summon me to my senses. Here's how it went:

"Mom and Mum are Getting Married!"
The offending title was a benign little picture book called Mom and Mum are Getting Married, one I've had in every school library I've run -- that's five and counting over eighteen years I've been an elementary teacher. Published in 2004 -- shortly after the State of Massachusetts equalized marriage rights, with Canada following suit -- it is the story of a little girl who's excited about her parents' wedding. I pointed out that the book was a needed recognition of diverse families in our schools, just like others I had about single-parent families, extended families, and the like.

"I don't think we even have any gay families in the school," offered the administrator.

"First," I replied, "What's a gay family? And how would we know that? We know what parents or guardians are responsible for children, but we have now way of knowing what their orientation is, or that of their children."

I knew what she meant, of course. Her hetero-normative assessment of families in our school was simple: She knew of no child with two mums or two dads; therefore, all our parents had to be straight. The kids, too. Then she dropped the big one:

"But what are our Muslim students going to read?"

(Keep in mind, these children were twelve to fourteen years of age.)

"They can read any book they want," was my reply. "It's a library. In a school. Where our job has always been to teach children about how different people live all over the world. They're Muslim; they're not made of glass. I find it troubling to assume that they or their families would automatically be opposed to learning about something because it might be different from what they are used to."

I stood my ground. The book remained.

Speakers at the student-led March For Our Education Toronto - SAVE SEX ED, T&R protest echoed concerns I've long held about scapegoating of religious minorities, people of colour, as well as recent immigrants, in the now-eight-year-long sex ed debacle. Co-organizer Frank Hong called out this exploitation:

"It is unfortunate that immigrant communities were so shamelessly manipulated by radical social conservatives. They were able to target each culture's weaknesses and stir up hatred and division all for their petty political goals. Shame on them for exploiting minority causing the situation of where we are today."

March for our Education co-organizers Frank Hong
and Rayne Fisher-Quann at Queen's Park. July 21, 2018. 

Backlash against the original curriculum in 2010 was driven largely by far right Christians -- the usual crowd: Charles McVety of Canada Christian College, Gwen Landolt of REAL Women of Canada, Jack Fonseca of Campaign Life Coalition, Teresa Pierre of Parents As First Educators. They were shrill, but they didn't really draw big crowds.

Enter the Thorncliffe Parents Association, a protest group that emerged in 2014, after then-Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced that the 2010 curriculum was going to be making a comeback. The Thorncliffe Park community in the former Borough of East York is home to one of the largest elementary schools in North America -- so large, in fact, that when the Province of Ontario shifted from half-day to full-day Kindergarten, a separate building and school was created to accommodate them.

Languages most commonly spoken other than English at home are Urdu and Gurarati in the predominantly South Asian community. The neighbourhood had been at the centre of the controversy over Bill 13, The Accepting Schools Act, back in 2012. At that time, right wing activists had created boiler-plate "family spiritual values letters" -- downloaded by parents and submitted to schools. The letters enumerated topics parents deemed unacceptable for their children, and were sent to schools with the expectation that parents would be given advance notice. The letters, by the way, went nowhere -- school boards were adamant. A court case launched by Hamilton, Ontario, parent Steve Tsourloukis ultimately failed in its mission to make such letters a legal requirement of schools.

By the 2015-16 school year, when the curriculum was to be rolled out, parents in the community were already well-mobilized. Strikes ensued, in which parents kept kids home or sent them to makeshift lessons at a nearby park and community centre. Similar protests popped up in Peel and elsewhere. Horrendous tales of children being instructed to disrobe for lessons on anatomy circulated in fliers distributed in languages spoken at home.

Pressure was exerted on parents not to send their kids to school. A teacher in Thorncliffe told me that the school's principal had received a phone call from an anxious parent who said she couldn't get out of her building because protestors were blocking the front door. Teachers in several schools relate stories of parents keeping their kids home, not because they objected to the curriculum.

Because the parents didn't want their children witnessing the anger and shouting of the protest.

A community volunteer teaching Thorncliffe Park students in a nearby park.
I recall chatting with co-workers during the strikes. A fellow-teacher said to me of the parent protests in Thorncliffe Park, "But it's against their religion."

Let's pause to consider what might constitute it. A student having two parents of the same gender feeling welcome at school? A child worried over questions about their own gender identity? A student learning the correct name of all their body parts, including genitalia, in order to protect against inappropriate touching? Having the right to define personal boundaries? Learning to respect those of others? Learning that abstinence is the most surefire way of avoiding STIs and unplanned pregnancy, so long as one practises it? Learning that self-pleasuring is a normal expression of ones sexuality?

Any one of the above might be against somebody's religion -- or their interpretation of their religion -- but it also doesn't make any of above invalid. Education ministries, school boards and school staff are increasingly mindful of the ethno-cultural and religious diversity of the communities in which we work. Those of us who benefit from a system that rewards our own privilege have tried to attune ourselves to respect others who have not benefited similarly and who see the world differently. That's a good thing.

At some point, though, there are views we cannot accommodate.

This was brought home to me during a recent discussion with a school administrator about my work as a GSA leader. He explained quite calmly why such a group could never exist in his school. Don't get me wrong, was is message. I'm right there with you, but our Muslim parents wouldn't understand. He cited the protests I discussed above, parents permanently withdrawing their children from schools, and the peril to smaller schools where staff and community members fear that closure is imminent.

My response to him? "No child or family in your school can possibly against someone else's religion."

That, for instance, is not a reasonable accommodation.

On the other side of this coin is the exploitation of these communities that Frank Hong spoke about. Back in April of 2015, I wrote about one of several very large protests mounted against the curriculum. On the one hand, groups like the one in Thorncliffe were being presented as being grassroots. At the same time, traditional white, Christian organizers were becoming more present in the protests. This was the speakers list from one such event:

MyChildMyChoice committee organizers including Sam Sotiropoulos -- former TDSB Trustee who became famous for his appropriation of the word homosexist.

Teresa Pierre, Parents As First Educators -- Catholic parent advocate who's petitioned against GSAs, HPV shots, and OECTA at Pride. (Update: Tanya Granic Allen later became the leader of this group.)

Charles McVety, Institute for Canadian Values -- who's been staying away from public events on the sex ed curriculum until now.

Monte McNaughton, former PC Leadership contender -- used the curriculum to launch his campaign with an appearance on 100 Huntley Street.

Patrick Brown, PC Leadership contender (tentative due to schedule conflict)

Jack Fonseca, Campaign Life Coalition -- a frequent guest of the former Sun News Network.

Parents from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds -- I presume these are the grassroots folks.
Many of the above would continue in this fight. Mrs Granic Allen parlayed her activism into a shot at running for the Ontario PCs. Although Ford terminated her candidacy, I'm betting she comes back. Most disturbing was the presence of Charles McVety at these events. Mr McVety's television program was suspended from broadcast following a ruling by regulators regarding his statements on Islam and homosexuality.

My heart to hurts think of buses being sent out to various neighbourhoods, residents herded aboard, to ship them to Queen's Park to listen to Mr McVety lecture them.

Also worth noting is that among white Christian leadership of the anti-sex ed movement, we find a lot of support not only for Doug Ford, but also for Donald Trump, a President who actually tried to close the boarders to Muslims and referred to African countries as "shit holes."

PressProgress -- Doug Ford ally Charles McVety:
Teaching creationism in schools “sounds like a good idea”
Photo by Jennifer McVety, Facebook

The final word on this goes to advocate and educator Farrah Kahn of Ryerson University's Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education (OSVSE). As a queer Muslim woman, Farrah stands in stark contrast to the image of reflexive homophobia cast upon her community. Her concluding remarks: "Stop blaming Muslims [for the anti sex ed protest]. We didn't start it. It's everyone's problem."

Farrah Khan at Queen's Park. July 21, 2018.