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'Porn should not be more accessible than sexual health education': Educators raise concerns over Alberta's proposed policies

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Former and current educators say Alberta’s already flawed education – around human sexuality, sexual orientation and gender – will only get worse under Danielle Smith’s proposed parental rights policies.

Last month, Smith said parents would soon need to opt-in to any formal instruction on these topics.

She also said all third-party material would need to be pre-approved by the Ministry of Education to ensure they’re “age appropriate.”

“I worry about, if third parties aren't allowed in, if it's restricted on what you can talk about, where do those youth get the support or the resources they need if, for example, they're part of a sexual or gender minority?” said Pam Krause, president and CEO of the Centre for Sexuality.

The centre was created in 1973 and reaches more than 5,000 students a year in Alberta schools.

Its aim is to provide accurate information in a safe space.

“They’re longing for this information about everything. This is part of, when someone reaches puberty, they’re starting to learn things about their body. They’re eager to learn about how to have a healthy relationship,” said Krause.

The Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton (SACE) is another organization that provides instruction in schools.

One of the programs – for grades 7 to 12 students – focuses on photo sharing.

“This has become a huge issue in our world, all over the place, you know, bribing and threatening and coercing people to take inappropriate pictures of themselves and then threatening to share them on the web,” said SACE CEO Mary Jane James.

James says she hasn’t been told directly SACE’s programs will be impacted but she is concerned.

The president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association says – in addition to fears students will miss out on this information – teachers are also worried about the regulatory burden.

“For instance, where I taught down south, the portions of human sexuality in our high school was taught by Alberta Health Services. A health nurse came in to deliver that portion of the curriculum working with the teacher. So how long will that take to get approval to have these individuals come into our schools? Will their materials have to be scrutinized? Who's going to do that scrutiny?” said Jason Schilling.

The Ministry of Education declined an interview request.

A statement from Minister of Education Demetrios Nicolaides states, “Policy implementation will require consultation and feedback from various stakeholders.

"Over the next few months, I will be engaging on how to implement these policies to best support students.”

Moving from opt-out to opt-in 'a logistical nightmare'

Requiring parents opt-in to classes discussing human sexuality, sexual orientation and gender is of particular concern to Carla Peck.

Peck spent five years teaching in New Brunswick before becoming a social studies education professor at the University of Alberta.

“I'm trying to imagine the logistics of tracking. So you've got a class of 30 students, and 16 of them bring back the slip saying 'yes.' OK. It's OK to move forward with this topic. And the other students don't? And is it buried in the bottom of their backpack?”

Peck says the UCP government is “trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist” since legislation already requires parents be notified ahead of any instruction that deals primarily and explicitly with human sexuality.

Parents can also opt-out of instruction without academic penalty.

“I think it deprofessionalizes the teaching profession. Teachers are professionals, they are well educated, they have sound judgment in terms of making decisions,” said Peck.

“And it's not that they are trying to do something under the cover of night without making sure parents are informed, the Education Act already ensures that parents and guardians are informed when it comes to particular topics.”

Calls for comprehensive curriculum on sexual health and SOGI education

Unlike other subjects – such as math and english – Alberta does not have a comprehensive curriculum on these topics.

Discussions around gender and sexual orientation can happen in social studies.

"In the early elementary grades, we learn about families and different kind of families," said Peck.

"In upper elementary and into junior high and high school, they're learning about the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. So that's another sort of obvious connection to this topic."

In Grade 4, children start learning about sexual health as part of Physical Education and Wellness with a focus on puberty.

Sexual intercourse is discussed in Grade 6 as well as pregnancy and STIs.

The higher grades still use the older curriculum.

From grades 7 to 9, topics include abstinence, contraception, sexual assault and ways to reduce sexual risk.

In high school, there are two objectives in the CALM (Career and Life Management) course: examine the relationship between commitment and intimacy in all its levels and examine aspects of healthy sexuality and responsible sexual behaviour.

“They're so broad and vague that teachers can choose to do very little in the classroom,” said André Grace, professor emeritus, Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta.

Grace spent years researching this topic as the Canada Research Chair in Sexual and Gender Minority studies.

Instead of placing more limits on education, he says the province should create a comprehensive curriculum on sexual health and SOGI education and provide more support to teachers and parents.

“We have a crisis in sexually transmitted infections across our country, notably, things like HIV and infectious syphilis are on the rise. We have children getting too involved in online pornography and the fallout of things like sextortion,” said Grace.

“Porn should not be more accessible than sexual health education in our schools. Bottomline. We need to educate parents about this.” 

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