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School division accused of sex-ed muzzle

River East denies outlawing sensitive topics

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Does River East Transcona School Division have a policy ordering teachers not to discuss homosexuality, abortion and masturbation (HAM) with students?

Demonstrators planning a protest against homophobic bullying at 5 p.m. at the legistature today say the policy is real and enforced.

What can, can't be taught

The department of education says that the words homosexuality, abortion and masturbation do not appear in the health education curriculum, but the province provides information to help teachers, parents and administrators discuss the three issues with students.

Voluminous material on the province's health education curriculum can be found at

The appendix of teaching materials on sexual orientation, abortion and masturbation is at


River East Transcona School Division says it does not have a policy forbidding teachers from teaching or answering students' questions on homosexuality, abortion, and masturbation (HAM). Here's what the division says:

"In May 2005, the school board strongly endorsed the potentially sensitive outcomes found within the Manitoba Education health curriculum for grades 5 to 10 and we provide special training to teachers who are responsible for teaching those potentially sensitive outcomes.

"Teachers don't teach about abortion or masturbation because they are not part of the curriculum and there are no health outcomes that focus on those topics. A potentially sensitive outcome for grades 9 and 10, cited as "describe social factors affecting human sexuality," touches on sexual orientation, and so that subject is taught within that context. Other outcomes in the health curriculum may lead to questions related to human sexuality, abortion and masturbation. If questions arise related to those three topics, teachers may respond with clear, factual explanations. If any of these topics arise in context in other classes, teachers exercise normal discretion and provide answers that emphasize tolerance and sensitivity.

"Division officials have not heard any concerns from its teaching staff or the community about the way the health curriculum is taught."

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The division and its teachers' union say the policy doesn't exist.

Rumours that the division has a so-called HAM policy have been around for years, but no one has ever seen it documented.

Teachers in River East Transcona are not allowed to initiate discussion about the three issues, and are told not to discuss the issues should students raise them in health, family life, or any other classroom, says University of Winnipeg political science Prof. Shannon Sampert.

"This is informal, this is what they've been told by the school division," said Sampert, who says she's a media go-between for an unspecified number of River East Transcona teachers fearful they could lose their jobs for speaking out.

Sampert said the demonstration will be run by HAM Happens: So let's Talk About It!, which she said is "a group of students, education providers, and the Rainbow Resource Centre."

River East Transcona Teachers Association president Jenniffer Schlag said she isn't aware of any such policy, written or unwritten.

"I haven't had any complaints from members. These are definitely important issues to talk about," she said, but, "I've never heard of any policy that would tell teachers to refrain from teaching sensitive material."

The division says abortion and masturbation are not part of the provincial health curriculum, but teachers may discuss those topics and sexual orientation when students raise them.

The department of education says that schools may choose the breadth and depth of sensitive content to teach within the health education curriculum: greater than the framework, the same level, less than the framework, or not at all.

Parents have the right to inspect the health curriculum, and can choose to opt out of having their kids take health education.

Manitoba Teachers' Society vice-president Paul Olson said he's unaware of a don't-discuss policy in River East Transcona, but said it is standard for teachers to receive professional training before teaching sensitive content. As a Winnipeg School Division teacher, Olson said, "If we get questions, we tend to answer them."

When he received training to teach health education in WSD, Olson says, he was told: "You teach the program; if any question comes up, you address it, because the kid has a need. You teach it in an age-appropriate way."

The Free Press reported earlier this year that health officials blame a lack of consistent in-school sex education for an alarming rate of sexually-transmitted diseases among Winnipeg youth.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 20, 2010 A5

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