One Hanover School Division trustee struggled to find her composure Tuesday when she recalled the time a father told her what he would do to his child if he ever came out as gay.
"I had a parent approach me in a public venue, surrounded by around 20 people, and boldly tell me that if he had a gay kid, he would take him in the basement and fix that," said Cyndy Friesen of a conversation three years ago during the heated debate over the province’s anti-bullying legislation, Bill 18.
Her story drew an audible gasp from one person in the crowd and helped illustrate the ongoing conflict over LGBTQ acceptance in Steinbach and surrounding area and why Friesen feels the division should do more. Not all parents, she said, are accepting, and for some kids a school is their own safe space.
"We would like to believe that all our kids have unconditional love and support from their parents, but the reality is that this isn’t always the case," she told the boardroom.
Each of Hanover’s nine trustees said their piece Tuesday night in response to a student request last month that the division revise its guidelines treating homosexuality as a "sensitive concern" that would not be broached as a classroom subject until high school.
160 people lined the walls of the board room for the public meeting while others huddled in the lobby. The discussion lasted 75 minutes.
Friesen and her colleague Ruby Wiens supported Steinbach Regional Secondary School Grade 12 student Mika Schellenberg’s appeal, but a majority of trustees appeared not in favour of changes, including board chair Ron Falk, vice-chair Rick Peters and fellow trustees Sarah Dyck, Lynn Barkman, Sue Doerksen and Shannon Friesen. Trustee Brad Unger did not explicitly indicate his stance but said the two conflicting sides need to have a more respectful dialogue.
Falk said a formal response to Schellenberg would be deferred to a later date. In an interview afterwards, Falk explained the board would send a letter to Schellenberg summarizing much of what was said Tuesday. A formal vote is not necessary in this case, he said.
"I don’t feel an overarching desire to have a vote," he said.
Of the trustees who suggested no changes were necessary, most commended Schellenberg for her courage and said though they respect her wishes, but didn’t think the division should change because of one person.
Rick Peters said even though he disagrees with Schellenberg, he should not be labelled homophobic. He said a phobia signals a fear and he is not scared of LGBT people. "I simply don’t agree with that lifestyle," he said.
Peters said 85 to 90 per cent of the emails received — as well as all phone calls and in-person conversations he’s had — have endorsed the division’s current practice.
He disagreed with Schellenberg, who argued it is not acceptable for schools to inform a parent or guardian when a child asks questions about sexual orientation, which may potentially "out" them to family that doesn’t approve.
"Removing the parents, and asking our teachers to not discuss things related to their children, is going down the path of residential schools, a mess the government is now starting to work its way out of," he said.
Peters added that students, especially those in middle school, are not mentally prepared to comprehend the complexities of sexual preferences.
Lynn Barkman said she "totally agreed" with Peters.
"HSD teachers, students and their parents know that our culture is changing, that does not suggest that we should abandon truth," said Barkman.
Speaking in her capacity as a health-care professional, Barkman linked the rise of sexual education in Toronto schools — which she said broke her heart — to a heightened risk for cancer.
"I just feel that there is enough cancer around and the increase in cancer is phenomenal," she said.
Sarah Dyck argued teachers shouldn’t be muzzled if a student talks about their same-sex parents. "Those are our families and we can talk about our families in our classes," she said.
But, she wouldn’t go so far as to say teachers should facilitate those discussions. Dyck said they should adhere to the mandate set by the province, adding teachers already have lots to teach in a tight schedule.
Dyck disagreed with Peters that parents should be informed of conversations a student may have with a teacher about sexual orientation. She said parents should be kept in the loop but "it doesn’t need to be an outing."
Sue Doerksen said bringing up matters of sexual orientation in every grade level is at odds with the values of the majority in the communities they were elected to represent.
She said they cannot educate students about religion at every class or grade level, so matters of sexual orientation and gender identity should not be singled out and afforded beneficial treatment.
Doerksen is grateful the Winnipeg School Division’s (WSD) policy demonstrates an appreciation of LGBT individuals but did not like that classroom activities and material are asked to reflect this.
"That’s almost bordering on indoctrination if we are enforcing that in all of our children and putting that in their lives constantly, that’s not fair," she said.
Shannon Friesen also felt adopting WSD policy, which ensures curriculum and instruction demonstrate an acceptance of students from all backgrounds including sexual orientation, was not the right way to go. She suggested that changes to their in-house policy should perhaps be considered.
Board chair Ron Falk challenged some of the criticism that has characterized HSD as behind the times for not unanimously endorsing this. Parent Michelle McHale initially made a similar request of the board in April. The board rejected it two weeks later.
He said, like the WSD policies "some people are so enamoured by," HSD also places an importance on diversity and equality education.
"This is exactly what we’ve been saying for the last two months; however, when HSD says this somehow it becomes narrow-minded thinking and we are accused by some of only following the basics of what we’re required to do," he said.
Provincial curriculum allows flexibility on when LGBT people can be discussed in class. Teaching the subject at all grade levels, as in the Winnipeg School Division, is allowed, as is HSD's policy where the matter is only part of high-school curriculum. The province’s health curriculum has been in place since the early 2000s.
Falk said sexual orientation and gender identity is only one of several topics deemed as sensitive.
"We cannot change the curriculum simply because somebody would like us to advance a personal agenda," he said.
Two trustees endorsed what Schellenberg and McHale campaigned for.
Ruby Wiens said it is "rational and fair" that both heterosexuality and homosexuality be addressed whenever human sexuality is brought up in class.
She deemed it irresponsible to say students are not already learning about this subject outside the home.
"The question is not whether to educate or not, the question is really whether we want education to come from people who have prepared for that role and actually care about the children? Or do we want to leave it to mass media and other children."
Wiens felt informing parents when their child asks about this subject omits the reality that not all students come home to supportive environments.
"We’d be naïve to believe there aren’t seriously negative attitudes and stereotypes within our communities that discriminate against our LGBTQ students," she said, explaining HSD can "lead by example" by changing its policy to show all their students are welcome.
Friesen suggested, as McHale initially did, that withholding information about LGBTQ individuals and telling students any questions they have can be answered after class violates the Human Rights Code. Friesen indicated not permitting discussion in class is considered differential treatment of an individual and is thus discriminatory.
She also said forcing teachers to talk to parents when a child discusses sexual orientation the division may also be violating the Manitoba Teachers’ Society’s code of professional conduct, which reads that student disclosures are kept private except only to tell "authorized personnel or agencies directly concerned with the individual’s student’s welfare."
Though current HSD guidelines follow provincial curriculum it doesn’t mean the division cannot do a better job, Friesen argued.
"Our mission statement states that we strive for excellence but when it comes to health education we are teaching the minimum required," said Friesen. "Are we doing our kids any favours by this?"