When Quinn and Polly decided to choose gay rights as the theme for their social justice project, they had no idea the lesson they were about to learn.
The pair — both Grade 6 students at St George School, a Catholic elementary school in Ottawa — told Xtra that they approached their teacher earlier in the school year asking if they could choose gay rights as the topic for their project that would be displayed at a school social-justice fair in January. Pending the approval of principal Ann Beauchamp, the teacher saw no problem with their chosen topic.
But there was a problem. Beauchamp allegedly barred them from completing the project, telling both the students and their respective mothers, Ann Maloney and Kate Hamilton, that gay rights was an inappropriate topic for their project.
“I was really angry,” Quinn says.
“We just want to do a project so people can learn about [gay rights],” Polly says.
Maloney and Hamilton, who later met with Beauchamp one-on-one on Nov 17, allege that the principal indicated that the Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB) would not allow the project to go forward because it didn’t reflect Catholic values and that the subject was inappropriate for the Grade 4, 5 and 6 students who would attend the social justice fair.
Maloney was surprised the appropriateness of the project was even broached. “Of course it’s going to be age appropriate — she’s 11,” Maloney says. Hamilton also questioned whether the OCSB actually supported this decision.
After calling St George School to speak with Beauchamp, Xtra was directed by school staff to contact Mardi de Kemp, manager of communications for the OCSB. Xtra left messages with OCSB chairperson Ted Hurley, who also advised, via voicemail, the reporter to contact de Kamp, and with St George’s trustee Betty-Ann Kealey, who did not respond.
The OCSB released an email statement in response to Xtra’s inquiries stating that it has a “rich family life program that addresses all aspects of human relationships and family life in an age appropriate manner. The curriculum stresses the dignity of each and every person and teaches that there are many ways to be a family.”
In response to Xtra’s follow-up questions, de Kemp said there would be no further comment except to reiterate the first statement.
Disappointed with their principal’s decision, Quinn and Polly mounted a small, silent protest of their own, attending school in rainbow-coloured clothes with small rainbow flags painted on their hands Nov 12. They say that a majority of their classmates support them.
As for the project, both still are hopeful that they can research gay rights as originally intended. If not, they may do a project about discrimination — a topic that will allow them to talk about LGBT issues.
Maloney points out that the school has, inadvertently, taught the kids a lot about social justice. “I said to the principal that I think that our girls have learned more about social justice in the last four days than they ever would have doing any kind of project,” Maloney says. “They have 11-year-olds talking about gay rights.”
Update Nov 28, 2014
However, Ann Maloney, Quinn’s mother, says that the reaction to the news has been mostly positive from friends and other parents.
In 2012, the government of Ontario passed the Accepting Schools Act, which requires schools to promote a positive and accepting environment for all pupils, including students of any sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
Gary Wheeler, a spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Education, told Xtra Nov 26 that the OCSB is in the best position to comment.
“Our expectation is that school boards comply with the Education Act, which requires them to provide safe, inclusive and accepting school environments that support the achievement and well-being of all students,” he said. “We encourage schools and boards to work with their students, parents, staff and communities to find ways to best meet the needs of their students.”