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(Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
(Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Halton Catholic school board policy on gay-straight alliances 'side-steps' issue Add to ...

On paper its ban on gay-straight alliances is lifted, but a new draft inclusion policy by the Halton Catholic District School Board doesn't allow them either.

Instead, the policy directs students to form groups called SIDE (safety, inclusivity, diversity, equity) spaces, which will be run by staff trained in the guidelines developed by the Institute for Catholic Education "to assist students of same-sex orientation."

Trustees approved a first reading of the draft policy late Tuesday. It will be returned to a committee for further public consultation and is expected to be decided on in final vote in late March.

One board member, however, was already dissatisfied with the policy. Speaking ahead of the meeting, Paul Marai, who is openly gay, said the board seemed to have moved from banning gay-straight alliances to banning the word gay.

He called the introduction of SIDE spaces groups a way of "side-stepping" the issue by limiting what student groups can call themselves.

"For some 'gay' is a dirty word and they don't want it used in the name of a club. The problem is this sends a strongly negative message to gay students that you can congregate but you can't really be visible," he said.

A copy of the guidelines, made public by queer newspaper Xtra!, shows a two-pronged approach to dealing with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues in school.

While the document calls on educators to enforce anti-discrimination policies, it also reiterates the church's official prohibition against sexual activity between two people of the same sex and exhorts teachers to lead "the homosexual student" toward "better sexual morality." It further suggests that "romantic attachments and behaviour" are fully expected of heterosexual couples, but discouraged among gay students.

A survey conducted by Xtra! also suggests the new policy's position on gay-straight alliances may be moot. A reporter contacted all 29 of Ontario's Catholic school boards and found that not a single one of their schools had a gay-straight alliance.

The controversy is the most recent public display of the tension generated by the flow of public dollars into Catholic education.

Ontario's Ministry of Education has introduced rules that mandate school boards to implement policies of student inclusion that allow gay and lesbian students to form clubs and support groups. The Catholic school boards received a letter from the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario raising concerns about the groups because they "imply a self-identification with sexual orientation that is often premature among high-school students."

In a lame-duck session in November, shortly after the new board of trustees was elected but before it took office, the old board voted to implement an inclusion policy that excluded gay-straight alliances, banning them outright.

Protests against the ban gained momentum after board chair Alice Anne LeMay defended the ban to Xtra! by listing Nazi groups as another example of clubs not allowed in the district's schools. In addition to the ban, the comment earned the board international notoriety and a rebuff from celebrity blogger Perez Hilton. Ms. LeMay has since apologized.

With a report from Adrian Morrow

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