What do you learn when you request a trove of emails from a Catholic school board accused of blocking two students from doing a project on gay rights?
For one, you learn that they really, really don’t want to talk a lot about the accusation, at least not to an LGBT news source.
More than 50 emails show that the Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB) kept tight control over what information emerged after Xtra broke the story that administrators at St George Elementary School in Ottawa had refused to allow two Grade 6 students to do a project on gay rights. Principal Ann Beauchamp told the students and their mothers at the time that gay rights was an inappropriate topic for their project.
Xtra requested the documents through a freedom-of-information request after Catholic Intelligence Blog published a truncated version of them. The Ottawa Citizen also obtained a copy.
Strict control over media access was put in place quickly after Xtra approached the OCSB on Nov 25. In response to follow-up questions from a reporter, Mardi de Kemp, the OCSB’s communications manager, wrote to Julian Hanlon, the OCSB’s director of education, and Peter Atkinson, the superintendent for St George’s. “[Redacted] up questions are below — I resent our response and declined to comment further. We cannot win by engaging with [redacted].”
The reporter’s name is redacted, but I can tell you I’m that reporter.
On Nov 25, I contacted Ted Hurley, then the OCSB chair; Betty-Ann Kealey, the trustee whose district includes St George; and de Kemp. In an emailed response, de Kemp said that they were putting together a statement and that, as a rule, the board sends only one comment to a news outlet.
Hurley would email the rest of the trustees on Nov 27 — two days after we published our story — advising them to forward any media inquiries to de Kemp.
As far as I can tell, no media outlet received an interview with anyone from the OCSB in the 48 hours after the story broke. But that changed after an apparent conference call on Nov 28 between the trustees, OCSB staff and other unnamed participants.
“[The statement] should demonstrate to both ‘sides’ in our community that this isn’t just Ted Hurley’s take on things, it flows from the Holy Father’s own (well known) comments,” writes someone whose name has been redacted from the documents, about a statement that would later indicate the OCSB was open to reversing its initial decision. “So I believe it’s essential — especially as we see in social media how often they position this as opposed to Pope Francis’s statements.”
I was emailed the statement the afternoon of Nov 28. I responded by asking if Hurley would be available for an interview; de Kemp replied with what was either a typo or a smiley face.
For all its lack of interest in talking to the media, the OCSB was certainly interested in following the story. Emails were fired back and forth about how all the published stories, by Xtra and other outlets, were being picked up on social media. “PERFECT LAST QUOTE FOR CBC piece on St George,” de Kemp wrote as the story came to the end of its news cycle.
Later, someone whom I can only assume was another reporter emailed de Kemp and asked for comment on Xtra’s final article on the saga, in which Quinn’s mother, Ann Maloney, revealed that the two students wanted to start a gay-straight alliance.
“It would not be our protocol to comment on one media outlet’s coverage (XTRA) of our Dec 8 statement to another media outlet (CATHOLIC REGISTER),” de Kemp writes.
A statement was sent to the Ottawa Citizen; de Kemp sent me a copy on Dec 9 after I requested it.
I also requested an interview, but I was told that no one would be available that day. Apparently, that wasn’t true. In de Kemp’s reply to the other reporter, she offers a short interview with Hanlon. The emails also reveal that she had scheduled three interviews for Hanlon with Metro, CBC and the Ottawa Citizen.
I’m not the first reporter to run afoul of the OCSB’s media policies. Ottawa Citizen reporter Elizabeth Payne outlined the media restrictions placed on OCSB trustees in the early days of the story breaking. She writes that it seems to be part of a trend in Canada, where school boards suffer from a lack of transparency.
Earlier in January, trustees at the Toronto District School Board were dressed down publicly by a searing report commissioned by Minister of Education Liz Sands. Among the problems uncovered by the report were trustees who interfered in school operations and who had created a culture of fear among staff. An earlier Globe and Mail investigation cited a lack of transparency as one of the reasons for the dysfunction at the TDSB.
I called de Kemp on Jan 29 and asked why Xtra had been left off the interview list. She didn’t want to comment on the record over the phone, preferring to tell me later by email that the OCSB does not grant all interview requests and sometimes “concentrates on local/Ottawa based interview requests.” Our story had appeared in the Ottawa print edition of Xtra in December.
In one of the early emails, Hanlon describes the board’s position as “no-win.” I understand that perspective: on one side, they have the Christian right; on the other, they have the pesky, gay-marriage-loving liberals.
But “winning” shouldn’t really be the goal for a publicly funded educational organization. The OCSB should be ensuring that the curriculum is taught within the boundaries of the law — including the Education Act, which, because of the Accepting Schools Act amendment, now includes provisions that require school boards to promote positive school climates.
And when they make decisions, they need to be held accountable for them and defend them — to whoever may come calling.