[23 February 2015] - As Ontario finally revealed on Monday an update to a sex-education curriculum that’s stagnated since 1998, parents were told they could pull their children out of some but not all of the lessons.
That could be anything from a novel in English class (some people object to Harry Potter books because they glorify witchcraft) to evolution.“It’s actually in the Education Act that a parent has the right to withdraw their child from content they don’t want their child to receive,” Education Minister Liz Sandals said in an interview.
The revamped sex-ed curriculum includes lessons about technology and sexuality — such as the dangers of sexting or sending nude photos online — and begins with discussions about healthy relationships and anatomy as early as Grade 1.
For some parents, discussions of anal sex or contraception in Grade 7 might raise eyebrows, but Ms. Sandals said the material relating to sex is only about 10% of the lengthy document. It also includes health lessons about nutrition and why physical activity is important. Those are efforts to combat childhood obesity, just as the sex-ed lessons seek to address sexually transmitted infection (STI) rates that have climbed among teens while the number of unplanned pregnancies has fallen.
That trend shows the old curriculum did a good job teaching about contraception, but may have not done enough to explain there’s more than one way to get an STI. That’s why the new guidelines include more discussion about safe oral and anal sex, the Education Minister said. The new lessons will be introduced starting in September.
Former premier Dalton McGuinty pulled back on similar changes in 2010 in response to a vocal minority opposed to the evidence-based reforms. Demonstrations are planned for the provincial legislature on Tuesday, both for and against the new curricula.
Parents have the right to pull their children from sex-ed classes, but it’s a “real rarity,” said Bob Schreader, vice-president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association. That group and the Institute for Catholic Education supported the curriculum throughout its development.
“As a catholic community, we’re going to ensure our children get that information, but we are going to do it through a catholic lens,” Mr. Schreader said. He said parents’ concerns can often be allayed by talking to teachers instead of pulling their children from classes.
There is no province-wide process to follow if parents want to opt out. Each school board deals with such matters differently, usually under equity policies for religious or conscientious accommodation.
Some schools still send out letters or permission forms before sex ed begins, but not all. Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, advises parents to talk to their children’s teachers if they are concerned about the material.
Ms. Sandals also noted that schools are not required to provide alternative assignments or tests if children are pulled from class, so it’s important to understand if material will be covered in other ways or not.
And some aspects of the new health curriculum can’t be avoided — explaining why it’s OK that some families are different, and not teasing other students because they have “two mommies” or two fathers, for instance.
This portion of the curriculum was enshrined in Ontario law under an anti-bullying bill in 2012, as well as under provincial human-rights legislation.
“The human-rights pieces [of curriculum], you’re not going to be able to exempt your [child] from those,” Mr. Barrett said.
All three parties at Queen’s Park have lauded the update as necessary. Even the Progressive Conservatives, who lambasted the 2010 version, have said the new curriculum was required. However, conservative MPPs have also said they will listen to constituents as the new lesson plans roll out and raise any issues in the house.
A case that could be considered this year by an Ontario court could test how much right a parent has to know what’s discussed in classrooms.
In 2012, Steve Tourloukis, a Hamilton, Ont. dentist, brought an application against the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board for refusing to give him advance warning when certain topics that contravene his Orthodox Christian faith were to be raised in class. His lawyer said Monday the hope is that case will be heard in court this year.
When the lawsuit was filed, then education minister Laurel Broten defended the school board’s decision, saying it was not possible to predict when a teacher might discuss same-sex marriage or other issues on Mr. Tourloukis’s list.
CRIN's campaign 'Protect children, end censorship' is concerned with blocking children's access to vital information from diverse sources on issues from sexual health to history and politics, saying it is for their own protection.
CRIN calls for stronger standards on children’s right to information and, where restrictions are appropriate, that they are transparent and in line with all children's rights as set out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.