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Horizon weighs in on controversial Best Practices guidelines

Posted on January 27, 2016 by Taber Times

By Nikki Jamieson
Taber Times
njamieson@tabertimes.com

When it comes to making everyone feel comfortable, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

During their monthly meeting on Jan. 19, the Horizon School Board discussed the Best Practices guidelines that were recently released by Alberta Education, and what its challenges or potential impacts might be.

Earlier this month, there was widespread panic when the guideline’s for Alberta Education’s Best Practices was released, over the thought of boys using girl’s bathrooms and vice-versa. With concerns of privacy violations and hormones leading to inappropriate situations, the uproar was about a few possibly abusing a system where the rights of the many were sacrificed to make a few people comfortable.

Parents can relax; no boy or girl will be using a bathroom or changing room of the opposite gender.

The passing of Bill 10 on June 1, 2015, led to changes to the Alberta Human Rights Act, in terms of gender identity. This in turn led to changes to the Education Act, in regards to ensuring that LGBTQ students and staff members have a welcoming, caring, respectful safe school environment.

“Ministers have informed jurisdictions that policy needs to be updated,” said Wilco Tymensen, superintendent for the HSB. “In our jurisdiction, a lot of the policy has already been updated; if you look at our student conduct, if you look at safe and caring schools policy, those policies are already fully compliant and in alignment. But there are some specific statements that we need to add to our documents.”

These practices include guidelines for:

* Providing supports that respond to a student’s individual needs.

* Respecting an individual’s right to self-identification.

* Maintaining school records in a way that respects privacy and confidentiality.

* Ensuring dress codes respect an individual’s gender identity and gender expression.

* Minimizing gender-segregated activities.

* Enabling students with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions to have full, safe and equitable participation in curricular and extra-curricular activities.

* Providing safe access to washroom and change-room facilities.

* Providing professional learning opportunities that build the capacity of staff to understand and support diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions.

* Using a comprehensive whole-school approach to promote healthy relationships and prevent and respond to bullying behaviour.

* Ensuring students have the understanding, skills and opportunities to contribute to welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environments that respect diversity and nurture a sense of belonging and positive sense of self.

* Ensuring all families are welcomed and supported as valued members of the school community.

* Ensuring that school staff have work environments where they are protected from discrimination based on their sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions.

Throughout the document, the term ‘guideline’ appears 13 times in the 21-page document, eight of those are just in the introduction, which discusses the basics, and not each specific topic listed above, of what the changes will involve. That is because these are not set rules.
Additionally, a lot of these topics are not quite as controversial as they seem. Cycling back to the bathroom issue, there will likely be no girl using a boy’s bathroom or vice-versa.

“Part of the guidelines talk about somebody who identifies as the opposite sex, they have a right to privacy, but the other students have a right to privacy as well. Individuals who don’t feel as if they have the proper level of privacy in a changing room, or a proper level of privacy in a bathroom, find other accommodations for them.”

For instance, take one or some of those single stall staff bathrooms – depending on how many will need it or how big your school is – and take the word ‘staff’ off it, allowing those who are uncomfortable using a bathroom of their assigned genders to go to the bathroom more freely.

“If it was a single stall bathroom, why not just put the word bathroom on it, or washroom? And a student who feels uncomfortable in a large group setting for whatever reason really – medical, health – It just say washroom, and is open for any individual to use, who feels unsafe in another bathroom.”

Alberta Education is recommending for newer school to install these single stall bathrooms alongside more public washrooms. However, older school would have to make due with working with their existing infrastructure.

“I’ve had some mothers come to me about this,” said Blair Lowry, board member, referring to a quote made by David Eggen, the Education Minister, in a newspaper article. “‘When a school doesn’t have such a washroom, according to Eggen, A boy who self-identifies as a female should be able to use the girl’s washroom’. And there’s parent out there that are (concerned).”

“In my mind, we already have, as a board, your practice and your beliefs are safe and welcoming for all kids. We don’t say all kids except, we say all kids. In my mind, in terms of discrimination and harassment, as a board, those are serious things that you look into,” said Tymensen. “And so in my mind as well, correct me if I’m wrong, but really as a board, you have a student that’s uncomfortable in a washroom or changing room, you typically can sit down with that family, our schools typically sit down with those families and try to come up with a local solution that appeases everybody. We recognize that those solutions are not going to be exact same in every situation. But it really come down to looking at things on a case-by-case basis.”

Ultimately, while they have to follow the law, the division can create their own rules as to how to deal with this issue. Right now, the plan is to change a bunch of single-stall staff bathrooms in their schools into ones that all students could use. As for changing rooms, a few stalls will allow students to change more comfortably among peers, and some of schools already have them in their changing rooms. Or, as was a recent case with a boy’s changing room, students could change in nearby bathrooms.

“It will be an ongoing conversation. And then maybe the solution, as an example, maybe then a bathroom or changing room gets retrofitted.”

On the topic of minimizing gender-segregated activities, it does not mean a boy can join a girl’s team will-nilly or vice-versa. But rather thing such as if there are not enough players for both a girl and/or boys team then merging them together – which is already being done – and not dividing up classes/groups/students or any variation thereof based on gender.

“Ideally, you should be minimizing those kinds of areas, where it’s not required, to the best extent as possible,” said Tymensen. “There is a recommendation from the province that really, at certain points, do you have to have boys and girls teams? As an example, we already have teams where it’s a basketball team and you can’t form a girl’s team, and there already are activities where a female may play on a boy’s team. That’s already the case in hockey in some cases. That’s already happening. And so they’re saying, rather then simply saying ‘this is only a hockey team for girls, or for boys, you can’t play because of your sex’, minimize that.”

And as for ensuring dress codes respect an individual’s gender identity and gender expression; it is simply saying that you can’t ban one gender from wearing something that the other can. For example, you can’t have a dress code that states that girls can wear dresses while boys cannot; every student should be able to wear the same type of clothes as the student next to them, regardless of gender.

Each school would also be required to allow the creation of a LBGTQ alliance, building staff capacity to understanding and supporting individuals and that they can direct students with questions or concerns of gender identity or expression can be directed to the proper support.

“We, as a school division, are legally responsible to ensure the safety, welcoming and support of all families, and that discrimination will not be tolerated.”

While all school boards are required by law to adhere to the Education Act, the provincial government is leaving the responsibility of creating these policies up to the school boards, choosing to instead have a list of what they would take into account when policies. Some board members were still a little concerned over how much room they have to interpret the policies, however.

“He has also said that Edmonton (Catholic), if they do not step up, they will deal with it,” said Marie Logan, board chair. “Obviously they have already determined what the wording is.”

“When the minister spoke with school divisions, his comment of course becomes the legal obligation of the human rights act; you cannot discriminate. The comment of course becomes that we recognize that the government, that there’s diverse opinions, perspectives around this matter,” said Tymensen. “Rather then making one policy, provincially, the ministers comment was what we put out is guidelines, they are not mandatory. However, school divisions must comply with legislation, and school divisions are in the best position to cover policy.”

Tymensen reiterated that it is up to each school division to interpret and implement these new policies, although they are required to send the education minister, David Eggen, copies of their updated or new policies by the end of March to be approved. This does give the board very little time to review them, but they are confident that they could make the tight deadline work.

A draft policy will go the policy committee for feedback on Feb. 8, which will focus solely on this policy, before being shared with schools and school councils. The policy will go to the board for first reading during the Feb. 23 board meeting, and once changes and amendments have been made, the second and final readings will take place in March, and then the policy will be sent to the minster for approval.

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