Kelly Gallagher-Mackay is a parent, public-education activist and assistant professor of Law and Society at Wilfrid Laurier University. Nancy Steinhauer is an award-winning educational leader and principal at the Mabin School in Toronto. Their book Pushing the Limits: How Schools Today Can Prepare Our Children for the Challenges of Tomorrow is shortlisted for the Donner Prize for best book by a Canadian about public policy.
Ontario’s sex-ed curriculum has emerged as a wedge issue in a highly polarized election campaign this spring – and yet the discussion is characterized by misinformation and manipulation – just like when it first came out.
Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford has said he’ll repeal the curriculum, claiming, “Sex-ed curriculum should be about facts, not teaching Liberal ideology.” Former PC candidate Tanya Granic Allen claimed the curriculum “sexualizes children, robs them of their innocence.” While she was fired last week for extreme statements, Mr. Ford’s second-ballot leadership victory was due almost entirely to her supporters. Mr. Ford insists that parents were not consulted in developing the curriculum, when parents from every elementary school were surveyed, alongside consultations with 3,100 educators, students and other stakeholders.
The current curriculum addresses a range of fundamental societal changes since the 1990s: cyberbullying, the prevalence of porn, consent to sexual activity in the age of #MeToo and dangerous new drugs such as fentanyl and crystal meth. Following the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it affirms different sexual orientations and family types.
In 2015, polling found that 93 per cent of Ontarians wanted children to learn current and accurate information about sex and human development. Nevertheless, when the curriculum was published, there were massive protests organized by religious groups in the name of parents’ rights.
The most visible battleground was the mass action of parents who pulled their kids out of Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park Public School. At its peak, 1,220 of 1,340 students were withdrawn. Parents ran a “school under the trees” to co-ordinate home-schooling. Many enrolled their children in private religious schools.
A small minority of the parent organizers at Thorncliffe Park – connected to larger religious networks – actively circulated misinformation through flyers and the internet. A letter in Arabic warned that Grade 1 students would be shown pictures of private parts and taught to touch their own, Grade 6 children would be taught to masturbate and high-school students would have a unit on Making Sex Feel Good where they read pornography – all fabrications. Facebook posts warned about Premier Kathleen Wynne’s “homosexual indoctrination” of kids. Public-health sessions on sexuality were described as “allow[ing] those beasts to come and feast on our kids.”
While the confrontation made international news, the incredible work of educators and parents in developing a way forward got much less attention. In our book, Pushing the Limits, we describe this work as an example of how schools can prepare our children today for an unknown, even risky, future.
Jeff Crane, the principal at Thorncliffe Park, was in the spotlight. He had to address fear, anger and misinformation, and was flooded with xenophobic letters and calls from others urging him to tell the protesting parents to “go back where they came from.”
Eid Ismaili is one of the parents who pulled his children from school. A student of human rights at York University who escaped danger in Sudan, he believes it is the job of parents to teach children about sex and relationships. He is worried that if schools teach about sexuality, it signals to students that they are ready for sexual activity – something he considers “criminal.”
Facing a parent community with similar beliefs, Mr. Crane decided that he needed to be pro-active, “since this was taking up all my time anyway, I thought we might as well do it on my terms.” He carefully planned a series of 20 separate sessions to meet with groups of parents, three classes at a time. The 650 parents who attended didn’t always agree, but they universally appreciated the chance to hear from him directly. Mr. Crane reflected: “It is easy to get caught up in the moment, think these parents are ignorant. That certainly wasn’t the case.”
In response to pressure, Thorncliffe offered an adapted sex-ed curriculum as an approved religious accommodation. About 40 per cent of parents opted for it. Boys and girls were taught separately, and concepts about personal safety were taught without using explicit language (private parts versus penis or vagina). All students learned that families are diverse, and that gays and lesbians are equal members of society.
One calm conversation at a time, parents brought their children back. By the end of the year, 1,310 students were re-enrolled in their community school.
Mr. Ismaili’s children returned because they missed the school’s library and their friends. Mr. Ismaili worried the religious school they’d switched to was not preparing them to live with those who did not share their beliefs. “I want them to be educated in their religion, to be good people … but to be able to work in the bigger world. We are all in this society; we have to share what we have.” While he uses his right to opt out of sex-ed classes for his boys, he can live with them learning about different kinds of families.
What does this story tell us about schools of the future? First, schools that are preparing students for an unknown future inevitably teach more than the 3R’s. Sex education is an essential part of students’ safety and well-being. Recognition of diverse families, gender identities and sexual orientations is not ideology, it’s a constitutional right. It is a central purpose of schools to prepare students for a fast-changing, potentially risky world. In doing that, controversy is inevitable.
Second, the best educators reach out to those who disagree – especially those who’ve been part of a maelstrom of misinformation and even hatred. They know their job is to reach both parents and children – and to engage in brave acts of learning together.
Finally, the greatest strengths of our public schools are not just pull-factors like well-stocked libraries and kind, knowledgeable classroom teachers, but the built-in opportunity to learn to live with people of all backgrounds – even people whose beliefs conflict with your own. This is democracy in action, alongside the choices we make at the ballot box.