3 min

Halton Catholic school board shoots down LGBT inclusive policy

Trustees take issue with anything to do with sexual orientation or gender identity

St Benedict Catholic Elementary School, located in Milton, is one of the schools under the Halton Catholic District School Board.  Credit: Larry Arbuckle/YouTube

The Halton Catholic District School Board has rejected a progressive discipline policy because it mentioned sexual orientation and gender identity.

After a heated debate at a board meeting on May 17, 2016, the board of trustees voted 4-3 against approving an updated version of a progressive discipline policy.

“You could’ve cut the tension in the room with a knife,” says Burlington trustee and board chair Jane Michael. “It was discussed quite vigorously.”

The policy was intended to discourage bullying, violence and disrespect by guiding schools in the way in which they can discipline students.

The policy states that schools should be safe for all people regardless of their sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity, along with a variety of other protected categories, such as race and disability.

“The Board considers homophobia, gender based violence, and harassment . . . unacceptable,” read the policy.

But some trustees took issue with the inclusion of anything to do with sexual orientation or gender identity because they believed it would go against Catholic teaching.

Oakville trustee Anthony Quinn wanted the removal of those terms, according to Michael and Oakville trustee Paul Marai.

“We’re not asking for any of these trustees to go take out a float in the parade,” Marai says. “We’re saying students shouldn’t feel endangered for being who they are."

Michael says that the wording was taken directly from Ontario laws, such as the Education Act and the Ontario Human Rights Code, and that she believes that none of the language went against Catholic teaching.

“The church recognizes the dignity of all persons and neither defines nor catalogues them according to their sexual orientation,” she says. “So I think there was some independent feelings that the catechism was not being adhered to when in fact it is being adhered to.”

All policies passed by the school board are first examined at the policy committee, which include every member of the board. The progressive discipline policy had been passed unanimously at that level and had been vetted by the school board’s lawyers.

“We had a very good discussion and it was a unanimous decision and it passed,” Michael says. “So it stood to reason in my mind that it was going to pass again.”

Despite multiple attempts to contact him by phone and email, Quinn did not respond to Daily Xtra’s requests for comment. Burlington trustee Susan Trites and Oakville trustee Helena Karabela, who both voted against the policy, also did not respond to various requests for comment.

Oakville trustee Anthony Danko says that he voted against the policy because he had been absent at the policy committee meeting and wanted more time to review it.

“I just wanted another chance to take a look,” he says. “It came up fairly quickly.” When asked if he shared Quinn’s concerns about mentions of sexual orientation and gender identity, he said that he would simply like to have another look at in committee.

In recent years, Halton Catholic District School Board has often been at the centre of debates around sexuality, education and religion.

In 2011, the board banned Gay-Straight Alliances throughout the district, sparking a provincial outcry that contributed to the passage of Ontario’s Accepting School Act, which mandated that GSAs cannot be banned if students request them.

In 2015, police were called to a board meeting after a motion to delay implementation of Ontario’s new sex-ed curriculum failed.

Marai, who was on the board during the GSA controversy, says that some trustees haven’t learned from what he calls a “dark period in the board’s history.”

“We’re just repeating the past,” he says. “And at the end of the day, the only people it affects are the students on the ground who see it and don’t feel comfortable being who they are.”

However, both Marai and Michael say this latest vote isn’t representative of the progress the board has made over the past five years.

“I think we’ve been going in a very positive direction, and I don’t just mean on LGBTQ issues, but on inclusion generally,” says Marai, pointing to the proliferation of GSAs in schools across the district.

“In our schools, every student is to be made to feel safe,” Michael says. “I believe that we’re moving in the right direction.”

The policy will now return to the policy committee, which meets on June 14. Marai says that he hopes other trustees don’t try to water down the language and instead return it to the board as it’s written.

He notes that the board rejected the policy on the same day as the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.

“I’m afraid of what that says to the students in our school,” he says.