Q & A: Yearbook GSA disclosure a complicated issue

March 27, 2018 Dennis Theobald, ATA Executive Secretary

Question: I’m serving as the teacher-advisor to our school’s yearbook club and a question has come up: Can pictures or other references to student participation in gay–straight alliances (GSAs) be included in school yearbooks?

Answer: This is one of those questions that seems fairly simple on the surface but that raises larger issues about the obligations of schools and implications for school principals around disclosing membership in gay/queer straight alliances (GSA/QSA), particularly in light of recent amendments to the School Act.

While it would be a serious mistake to assume that a student’s participation in a GSA/QSA allows any conclusion to be drawn about that student’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, in some instances, participation in a GSA/QSA by itself can be contentious within families, the school and the community. For this reason, special provisions have been introduced in legislation to limit disclosure of the identity of students participating in GSAs/QSAs.

In the last session of the legislature, section 16.1 of the School Act was amended to clarify that a principal is responsible for ensuring that a notification, if any, respecting a student organization or activity (including GSAs/QSAs), must be limited to the fact that the organization is being established or holding an activity. Furthermore, as of April 1, 2018, s. 45.1 of the School Act will require board policy regarding its s. 16.1 responsibilities to stipulate that the principal is responsible to ensure that notification, if any, respecting a student organization, must be limited to the fact that the organization is being established or holding an activity and “is otherwise consistent with the usual practices relating to notifications of other student organizations and activities.”

From the perspective of teachers supervising the production of a school yearbook, this seems to set up a potential contradiction between the goal of protecting students’ right not to be identified as participants in a GSA/QSA and the desire to treat these student organizations like any other school club or activity. The legal picture is further complicated by provisions in the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIPP) Act and associated regulations that permit disclosure of personal information with consent and, in certain circumstances, even without consent.

Therefore, we have the School Act provisions that appear to limit disclosure, but an ability to disclose under the FOIPP act or the school records regulation. On their face, these provisions are arguably inconsistent.

So from a practical perspective, what is a yearbook teacher-advisor or school principal to do?

Taken together, the School Act and the FOIPP act provisions do not prohibit disclosure of information about participation in a GSA/QSA as long as the student involved has consented to such disclosure. Most junior high or high school students will be sufficiently mature to determine whether or not they consent to their parent (or in the case of a yearbook feature, potentially the entire school and school community) being informed of their participation in a GSA/QSA. Furthermore, it is important that information about the existence and operation of a GSA/QSA not be suppressed — ideally, the activities of the GSA/QSA should be celebrated in the same way as those of the chess club or the volleyball team.

At the same time, teachers and principals must prioritize the protection of students’ personal information and actively involve and empower mature minor students in decisions that might result in their membership in a GSA/QSA being disclosed. This consideration supersedes all others, with the result that teachers and principals must also manage the practical risk that consent given by a student to disclose their participation in a GSA/QSA might be withdrawn by the student at a later date.

If principals and school boards determine that obtaining student consent is too onerous or potentially problematic, they can always choose to publish information about GSA/QSAs in yearbooks in ways that do not identify individual student participants, but that highlight the objectives of these groups, profile the activities they have undertaken, and celebrate their contribution to the life of the school. ❚

Questions for consideration in this column are welcome. Please address them to Dennis Theobald at dennis.theobald@ata.ab.ca.

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