UPDATE: Jan 27 – Education Minister Laurel Broten sent Xtra a statement in response to the new Catholic school anti-bullying guidelines released Jan 26 by The Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association (OCSTA).
“We have set our expectations out clearly in the Accepting Schools Act. We have said that if requested by a student, every school and school board must support the establishment of a single-issue club to support students with a range of issues, including groups like a gay-straight alliance. This bill is still before the House and I hope that every member of the legislature will support the work we’re doing to make Ontario’s schools safe for every student.
I understand the Catholic trustees have released a paper. And I’ll take a look at that paper. We are creating a law – an accepting school law – that will lay out expectations for every school in Ontario and their obligations around supporting all students.
My expectation is that every board in this province will abide by our policies – policies that very clearly state that schools need to support student-led initiatives such a gay straight alliance.
Boards may choose different approaches to meet that expectation, but all must work to the same goal: ensuring every student feels welcome, safe and supported in an environment free from discrimination and harassment.
If requested by a student, the board must find a way to support the student. For example, the Ottawa Carleton DSB has a Rainbow coalition. This is not about the name but about what support is provided to students.”
Jan 26 – Leanne Iskander says new Catholic anti-bullying guidelines released Jan 26 put Catholic teachings before student needs. The guidelines maintain the church’s position that homosexuality is “contrary to natural law.”
Iskander has been fighting to start a gay-straight alliance (GSA) at her Mississauga Catholic school since March.
The long-awaited “guidelines,” developed by Ontario Catholic bishops, state that students will be allowed to start “Respecting Difference” groups. It is not clear if the clubs will be general “anti-bullying groups” or specific to queer youth.
The guidelines note that Catholic schools expect student groups to keep discussion about gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans issues controlled, supervised and with “Catholic teachings” as a resource.
“There is a lot of room for interpretation in the language,” Iskander says. “Other school clubs don’t have all these guidelines.”
The Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association (OCSTA) released the guidelines five months later than planned. OCSTA president Nancy Kirby refused to comment to Xtra.
The document represents what Catholic school boards expect to begin implementing in schools in an effort to support queer students.
When Kirby spoke to Xtra in April, she said the guidelines would be released by September. Since then, the Ontario Liberals have tabled the Accepting Schools Act, which is moving toward second reading in the legislature. The bill mandates GSAs in all schools, public and Catholic.
For Iskander, who has been fighting for a GSA at her Mississauga Catholic school since March, the guidelines are simply not good enough.
“This is the bare minimum they could have given us with the new provincial legislation,” says Iskander, who is the founder of Catholic Students for GSAs (CS4GSA). “This is worse than I expected.”
“Peer-counselling” will not be allowed. Also forbidden: “activism, protests or advocacy of anything that is not in accord with the Catholic faith foundation of the school.”
The document defies a directive from Education Minister Laurel Broten that all schools must allow students to start GSAs. It states that educators should instead reference the guidelines for questions on “homosexuality and morality.”
Iskander is concerned because she thinks groups will likely be forced to use the Pastoral Guidelines to Assist Students of Same-Sex Orientation to guide discussions.
The Pastoral Guidelines, developed by bishops at the Institute for Catholic Education, state that “gay” is not an identity, gay sex is “immoral and sinful,” and gay people ought to live a life of “chastity.” It is the primary document for instructing Catholic school administrators and teachers on homosexuality.
During group meetings a school chaplain and a teacher must be present at all times. “That’s problematic,” says Iskander. “They tend to be very firm in their belief. Even the name ‘Respecting Differences’ is a problem. Respecting everyone at school is a given. This is about acceptance.”
Kirby has been clear on what the groups will not be called: the name “GSA” is still banned.
“It won’t be a gay-straight alliance,” she told Xtra in past interviews. “When I look at a gay-straight alliance, I see an activist group. We are answering the students’ request for support and assistance, not for activism. Students don’t want to become activists; they want to be supported in being bullied by their peers.”
Experts say GSAs make schools more welcoming and accepting for queer youth. They have been found to prevent bullying, depression and suicide.
Education Minister Laurel Broten was not available for comment on Jan 26.
Reverend Thomas Collins, the archbishop of Toronto, did not return Xtra’s calls.
The guidelines state: “The primary teaching document of the Catholic Church is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is essentially a guide for how to live as a good Catholic.”
Here’s what the CCC says about homosexuality:
“Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity [sic]. Under no circumstances can they be approved.”
On sexuality, the guidelines reiterate the Catholic Church’s position: “The Church invites every person to develop the virtue of chastity . . . All actions involving human sexuality are morally assessed in reference to its two-fold meaning and purpose, mutual love of the spouses and an openness to life.”