Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Protest credit rebuked

Catholic school told it can't sanction 'vigil'

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Winnipeg's Catholic educational hierarchy has cancelled Christ the King School's plan to get elementary students and parents walking anti-abortion vigils outside the Health Sciences Centre.

"Catholic Schools in Winnipeg do not give community service or academic credit for participation in prayer vigils," said Robert Praznik, director of education for the Archdiocese of Winnipeg Catholic schools.

"There are no Catholic schools in Winnipeg that give academic credit for political activity," Praznik said. "We're very careful, we're not a political organization.

"None of this is part of the curriculum, and none of this is done on school time," Praznik said.

The Free Press reported Wednesday in a story that quickly went national that Christ the King School principal David Hood is considering seeking the kindergarten to Grade 8 St. Vital school community's approval to make participation in anti-abortion vigils an official school activity next year.

Hood has asked parents through a recent school newsletter to consider volunteering in the vigils, and Hood also said in an interview Tuesday any student who voluntarily takes part in the vigils this year can count that participation towards his or her community services requirement.

But Christ the King's board of directors said in a news release released through Praznik's office none of that will happen.

"This is not a school-sanctioned activity. Students are expected to be in class during regular school hours. Students do not receive community service or academic credit for participation in a prayer vigil," said the board, comprised of parents, parish members, and the parish priest.

Praznik said he met with Hood early on Wednesday. "He was here all day," said Praznik.

"He's a new principal to Christ the King, and that particular issue is close to his heart," he said.

Praznik clarified that Christ the King students are only required to perform community service in grades 7 and 8.

Earlier Wednesday, the Selinger government declared a private Catholic school receiving public funding would not be allowed to organize such activities.

Bureaucrats were trying to reach Hood to "seek clarity on the issue," said an aide to Education Minister Nancy Allan.

But the government would not make Allan or senior bureaucrats available for interviews Wednesday, and would not say what the consequences would be should the school go ahead with Hood's plans. That would be a hypothetical question, said Allan's aide.

Lori Johnson, a former school trustee and executive director of both Klinic Community Health Centre and the Sexuality Education research Centre, said Tuesday that anti-abortion vigils are political lobbying, and any school organizing such activities should lose its funding.

In the 2007-2008 school year, the most recent year for which provincial data are available, Christ the King received $666,324 in provincial funding, which comprised 60.2 per cent of the school's operating budget.

The funding is based on receiving a provincial operating grant per student of 50 per cent of the per-student spending in Louis Riel School Division, the public school division in which the school is located.

A veteran educator with extensive experience in Catholic schools said Hood's plan might not be specifically covered in legislation, but urged participation be a parental decision.

"I don't know that there is any sort of language in the legislation from the political lobbying point of view," said University of Manitoba education Prof. Jerome Cranston, a former director of Catholic education in the city.

"It does seem that people are looking for ways to have young people involved in political activity," Cranston said. "There definitely have been students who have been politically engaged."

Cranston was unaware of any schools having organized anti-abortion activities. "That's the first time I've seen it formalized," he said.

Cranston recalled that St. Maurice School got involved in the vigils several years ago, but that was as an extracurricular activity.

A school should ensure that participation in such activities are voluntary, Cranston cautioned: "Parents still need to be able to make appropriate choices."

Provincial policy on any academic recognition for community service is aimed specifically at grades 9 to 12 students, who can propose student-initiated projects to earn a credit towards the 30 required for a high school diploma.

Provincial policy appears to give each school considerable leeway in determining how to define community service.

Local public school divisions said they encourage students to get involved in the political process, but that tends to be through studying campaigns or working for Elections Manitoba. Student involvement "should take a non-partisan and balanced approach," said Seven Oaks superintendent Brian O'Leary.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 13, 2011 A3

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Updated on Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 9:19 AM CDT: adds photo

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