Requiring Grade 12 students to seek parental consent to take a gay-friendly elective course contravenes the BC Human Rights Code, the Abbotsford teachers union contends.
The union recently filed a grievance with the Abbotsford school board challenging the parental consent requirement to take Social Justice 12.
“I filed a grievance with the board claiming that this kind of action is contrary to the non-discrimination aspects of the Human Rights Code,” Abbotsford District Teachers’ Association (ADTA) president Rick Guenther told Xtra West Sep 3.
Guenther, who filed the grievance at the end of the last school year, says there have since been discussions with district staff but the matter has yet to be resolved.
“We never see trustees in any of these matters. We always work with the district staff,” Guenther notes when asked if there was any communication from the board itself.
Last fall, the Abbotsford school board angered students at WJ Mouat Secondary School who had signed up for Social Justice 12 only to be told they could not take the class.
About 90 students had signed up for the course, which introduces concepts such as homophobia, heterosexism and cultural imperialism. It was developed as part of a settlement reached three years ago between BC’s Attorney General and Murray and Peter Corren, who had filed a human rights complaint against the province alleging the omission of gay realities from the classroom was discriminatory.
The board eventually reinstated the course after a student-led protest last September, followed by a hundreds-strong social justice rally in December.
But in reinstating the course, the board developed a series of guidelines to govern its offering. Among the guidelines sent to administrators in a memo dated Apr 16 is a requirement that the district superintendent or designate must “annually inform administrators of the requirement for obtaining informed, active, and written consent from parents of any students under the age of 19 enrolling [in] the course.”
The memo also states that school principals must ensure that written parental consent is obtained prior to any student attending the first class of Social Justice 12; that the school timetable be developed in such a way that no student is programmed into the elective “by default, i.e. because no other elective is available;” and that a copy of the Intended Learning Outcomes be made available either electronically or in print form to the parents of any student who selects the course.
Guenther says as far as he’s aware requiring Grade 12 students to have signed permission from parents in order to take the course is unique to the Social Justice 12 course.
“No other optional Grade 12 course has that requirement,” he says. “So in some sense, it’s still receiving some discriminatory or preferential treatment depending on your point of view.”
Guenther says a copy of the grievance is now lodged with the BC Teachers Federation (BCTF). “The BCTF lawyers will actually decide which of the guidelines are the ones that will be taken to an arbitration, if it gets that far,” he adds.
The Abbotsford school board’s media liaison, Dave Stephen, confirms that the board did receive “something in late spring, early summer” when asked if a grievance had been filed with the board.
“It is in due process and we would have no further comment on that at this point,” Stephen told Xtra West Sep 3.
Asked why students had to get parental consent for this particular course, Stephen says the board’s feeling was that “they would like that course to move ahead with parental permission” and that that was “their prerogative.”
He says the board had heard “a variety of viewpoints” and “felt that was the appropriate process to move forward with the course here.”
Stephen says only two schools in the district — WJ Mouat and Bakerview Centre for Learning, a continuing education facility — are now offering Social Justice 12. “It’s open to any school to run,” he adds.
BCTF vice-president Susan Lambert says it’s “quite an interesting and ridiculous situation that children who have access to all the information the television provides are then forced to ask their parents for permission to attend a school course that seeks to give them the skills to critically analyze what they see in the mainstream media.”
Lambert told Xtra West that at least 30 new schools across the province are offering Social Justice 12 this year. That’s in addition to the 20 that offered it last year, she notes.
“I’m told that six out of 10 Richmond district high schools are offering Social Justice 12 this year,” she says.
“We found that the ban in Abbotsford was actually helpful in the long run because it drew attention to the course offering and actually resulted in a lot of interest,” Lambert adds.
Meanwhile, the BCTF filed its own grievance with its employer, the BC Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA), in December asking that it ensure all school boards enforce a 2007 ministerial order that all school districts and their schools develop codes of conduct.
The ministerial order was handed down following spring 2007 legislation that mandated school boards to make sure school codes of conduct referenced the BC Human Rights Code, which includes sexual orientation as a category protected from discrimination.
Lambert says the BCPSEA was given until the end of June to advise boards to get into compliance.
“We believe that time is up. We’ll go to the next step: arbitration,” she says.
BCPSEA media liaison Deborah Stewart confirms that the Teachers Federation filed a grievance in December but the matter was in abeyance until Jun 30.
“We have not heard back from [the BCTF] as of yet, so unfortunately we don’t have a lot to say,” Stewart says.
However, the BCPSEA does not view the codes as an employment issue, she says. “We advised the [BCTF] that should the matter proceed to arbitration, we would bring a preliminary objection that the matter is not grievable or arbitrable.”
Meanwhile an education ministry spokesperson says “as far as the ministry understands, every single school district has a code of conduct in place that they believe meets the ministerial order.”