WHAT IS ALBERTA EDUCATION’S PURPOSE IN RELEASING THESE GUIDELINES?
On November 5, 2015 Education Minister David Eggen wrote a letter to all school boards, with a requirement that each board submit policies and regulations or procedures prior to March 31st that “address the board’s responsibility to ensure that each student enrolled in a school operated by the board and each staff member employed by the board is provided with a welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environment that respects diversity and fosters a sense of belonging. It is important to specifically address the board’s responsibility as it relates to the LGBTQ community.”
Subsequently, on Jan 13, 2016, Education Minister David Eggen released a document by Alberta Education, entitled “Guidelines for Best Practices: Creating Learning Environments that Respect Diverse Sexual Orientations, Gender Identities and Gender Expressions” to help support school boards as they write their own required district-specific policies.
For an overview of the role of school boards, including how they are accountable to all citizens (not just those with school-aged children), please read my Feb 4 blog post.
The reason these are called “guidelines” is because they are non-binding, designed to guide and support individual school boards in Alberta as they draft/revise their own policies to address how they will support diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions in their schools. The Minister of Education requires all school boards to submit their policies before a March 31 deadline.
Stated on the first page of the Guidelines for Best Practices document:
WHO DO THESE GUIDELINES APPLY TO?
According to the first page of the document, all public, separate, and Francophone school boards, as well as charter schools and private schools are “advised to use these best practices to develop and/or revise policies, regulations, and procedures related to creating welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environments that respect diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions.”
Therefore, these guidelines apply to all school boards in our province. As I detailed in a recent blog post, a few school districts already had policies in place prior to this announcement by Alberta Education. However, most districts did not. Since most policies had to be written prior to March 31st, there was a crucial opportunity for parents and members of the public to provide input within each school district.
DO THESE GUIDELINES MATTER?
Please note I do not have an exhaustive understanding of all current policies in our province, especially because this is an evolving issue. I am not a legal expert. However, as a parent, former teacher and concerned citizen, I believe these guidelines represent a significant fundamental shift in how gender is viewed in our schools and in our culture.
I have been reading many responses to these guidelines in the media. Some seem to minimize the importance of these guidelines and some even suggest that these guidelines aren’t a big deal because schools already follow most of these practices already.
When you encounter those who claim that these guidelines are already practiced in schools in Alberta, you can respond by then questioning the need for these guidelines to exist in the first place. After all, if these guidelines are just redundant, then there is no need for Alberta Education to issue this document and require policies based on it.
For those that claim concerns about this guideline are unfounded – perhaps because these potential safety concerns are outlandish or would never happen – suggest that it is in everyone’s best interests to ensure school boards use the guidelines to ensure the wording is more effective in safeguarding against any potential misuse.
Perhaps on a practical basis there may not be immediate impacts or many apparent changes in schools. However, the wordings used in school district policies foster norms and represent ideologies that work to permeate the culture of the schools. When a government shifts policies in schools it impacts the next generation of our youth and their understanding of themselves and the world. Furthermore, when disputes arise, policies also inform which values and opinions take precedence over others. In my personal view, policies and the direction they set matter a great deal.
HOW COULD THESE GUIDELINES IMPACT SCHOOLS?
Keep in mind the wording of the guidelines matters only insofar as these words are adopted into actual specific school board level policies. However, considering this is a primary supporting document to district policies currently being developed, it would be important to examine the guidelines first to see if you have any concerns and then follow-up by checking with your district how and to what extent they are planning to use the same wordings and guiding principles.
First, let us examine Best Practice #2: Respecting an individual’s right to self-identification:
First, note the wording at the beginning of the section: “For the purpose of accommodating the diverse needs of students and staff in a school, an individual’s self-identification is the sole measure of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression” (emphasis mine).
I would take this to mean that anyone at any time is within their rights to decide, for themselves, that they identify with whatever gender they choose. There are no constraints, age restrictions or limits placed on the statement.
Effectively, gender becomes a fluid concept. Is this in the best interests of the majority of children? Would this concept be developmentally appropriate and psychologically safe for all K-12 students?
Some people would answer these questions with a resounding “yes!”, while others would respond with an equally resounding “no!, not to mention an entire spectrum of responses in between.
The concept of gender fluidity also introduces a tremendous incompatibility with foundation doctrine for those with a biblical faith. As I wrote in a recent blog post, how do parents, staff and students with a biblical worldview respond when their personal beliefs and values are directly contrary to this “best practice” in the Alberta Education document?
It is important to understand that all responses to this issue are rooted in deeply held value systems and beliefs. That is what makes the issue so complex and contentious. I created this website largely because I believe that minimizing the discussion to what is commonly portrayed in the media as just what washrooms people should use obscures the true complexity and implications of the issue.
Albertans need to be informed and engage in the issue because policies need to properly reflect and balance the differing value systems of Albertans themselves. This is why input from parents, staff and members of the public is so vital.
Now onto the following part of this same “Best Practice #2”:
Please note the wording above that, where possible, a student’s “explicit permission” be required before disclosing information related to gender to any adults in the student’s life.
Imagine you are a parent. Would you prefer clear communication between the school and home regarding your children and issues they may be struggling with, or should the information you receive, regarding something as personal as gender identity issues, be restricted to what your child provides permission for passing along based on their speculation of how you may respond? Keep in mind there are no age specifications given, so this wording applies equally to your Grade 1 daughter, as it does to your Grade 10 son. Personally, I believe it is extremely important to value, honour and engage parents in the learning of their children. Parents entrust the school with their valued and loved children. The school and home should be viewed as partners. I am concerned that this section of the Guidelines for Best Practices document erodes parental involvement and rights, as well as plants an inherent mistrust within the parent-school relationship and the parent-child relationship.
In the more exceptional cases of potential abuse, where a student does have legitimate fears, there are services and supports already in place to help protect student safety. Because these situations are more rare, they should be dealt with as the exception, not as the rule.
Donna Trimble, Executive Director of Parents for Choice in Education wrote a letter to the Calgary Herald voicing her concerns on how this “best practice” is not in the best interests of students, perhaps especially those struggling with gender identity issues.
Another guideline that could potentially have a significant impact on schools is “Best Practice #7: Providing safe access to washroom and change-room facilities” (page 9-10 of the Guidelines for Best Practices). Though it is important to be sensitive to the needs of students who do not feel comfortable using a gender-specific washroom, it is also important to balance those needs with the safety and concerns of all other students in the school.
On its own, there is not necessarily a cause for safety concerns with this guideline. However, it must be understood in the context of the entire document, including an “individual’s right to self-identification” discussed earlier. It is within this context that the current wording could be exploited to make all students more vulnerable.
For example, would it be a concern that your Grade 1 girl could find a Grade 6 boy in the female washroom or change-room if he decides to self-identify as a female that day? After all, an underlying premise of this document suggests that gender is viewed as a choice, not biology.
Given the wording of the current guidelines, the Grade 6 boy would have a protected right to be there, no matter whether he is there legitimately (as a biological male who gender identifies as female) or whether he decides to use the guise of gender identification that particular day as female for whatever other purposes he chooses. This guideline also applies to change rooms from K-12.
I have thought a lot about this one from the perspective of my experiences as a teacher. I taught Grade 6 and there are many kids who liked to push the boundaries. If I found a Grade 6 boy in the girl’s washroom and question why he is there, could he easily and justifiably accuse me of discrimination and having his protected rights violated? Is it really worth the risk to see how far K-12 students could abuse this “freedom”?
Check on the wording your school board uses, or intends to use, in their own policies regarding bathroom and change-room use and whether it is specific enough to help protect against possible misuse.
Also, if they choose to adopt the guideline recommendation of “non-gendered, single-stall washrooms” as a safety measure in their policies, find out how many schools in their jurisdiction actually have these washrooms in their facilities and how they intend to pay for these washrooms to be constructed in their other facilities.
For any school board policies that include what the guidelines suggest by “implementing proactive strategies such as communicating clear behaviour expectations to all students, increasing adult presence and supervision, and monitoring key areas of the building and grounds”, I encourage you to ask your local school how they intend to practically apply these safeguards. How exactly will they provide staff capacity for increased adult presence and supervision, especially when finances and staff resources are already spread so thin?
One last implication worth noting is on page 5, where it states “No student or family should be referred to programs which purport to ‘fix,’ ‘change’ or ‘repair’ a student’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”
My concern is that institutionalizing a view that promotes a separation of biology and psychology may create far more problems than it solves.
From a medical perspective, we must acknowledge that issues related to gender identity and sexual orientation are often complex. Imposing only one perspective as to the “best” treatment option obscures and simplifies a complicated issue and may in fact do far more harm than good to some of our most vulnerable, at-risk students.
If adopted into school district policies, this wording also poses some ideological challenges for school boards that operate faith-based schools.
Especially in a religious school context, where being male or female is valued and held as sacred, it may be the desire of students, staff and parents to explore options to help support a student in aligning their gender identity with their biological sex.
Regardless of whether you agree with a biblical worldview or not, my question is why the province should have the authority to limit options only to the choices that the government deems acceptable?
In a truly safe, respectful, collaborative approach, shouldn’t students and families be their own best judge of which programs to access?
There are actually 12 Best Practices in the government guidelines document and what I have explored so far is just a small portion of what is written. I would encourage everyone to read the document for themselves.
Please keep in mind these are my own questions and interpretations based on reading the Alberta Education document several times myself, as well as doing a lot of reading of hundreds of related articles online (please see Articles & Links section to read some of those articles for yourself).
As members of the public we put a lot of trust into our government and our education system that they have the best interests of all students in mind. We trust their expertise and experience and believe their goal is to form young minds into contributing, valued members of society.
When it comes to gender identity and sexual orientation we are dealing with values, beliefs and options that simply didn’t exist for previous generations.
My challenge for you as Albertans is to examine the “hidden curriculum”, when it comes to this issue or any other one. What are the underlying values and beliefs of policies that guide your school district, as well as the resources that they use to teach about the topic of gender identity and sexual orientation?
In the end, we need to ask ourselves if these types of policies are the best way to help protect LGBTQ students while not creating another set of new problems.
If you do have concerns about the guidelines, I encourage you to speak up to your elected officials. Please see the “How to Respond” section of this blog for more information.
*Updated June 23, 2016