The province is showing its leadership in protecting LGBTQ students and teachers, and now it’s up to school boards and superintendents to step up.
That’s the opinion of Kris Wells, a former Alberta classroom teacher who now heads up the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta.
Wells’ comments came after Education Minister David Eggen used social media to publish an open letter to LGBTQ youth inviting them to contact his office directly if they need help ensuring that their rights are being respected.
To Wells, this "historic and unprecedented move" is not only a meaningful show of support to LGBTQ students but also an indirect message to school districts.
"No school district is going to want the ministry to have to step in to support students because the schools failed to do so," Wells said.
"That in itself is another important message to the school districts: get your act together and do the right thing, the ministry expects you to support LGBTQ students in your schools."
Eggen published the open letter
Aug. 16. It’s the latest move in a campaign that began last fall, when he issued a ministerial order requiring that all Alberta school boards develop and submit LGBTQ protection policies by March 31, 2016. The policies were to ensure that schools are caring and safe places that respect diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions. In January Eggen generated further controversy when he released a set of 12 guidelines aimed at helping school boards formulate such policies.
"As minister of education, I have been working with your school boards to make sure that our schools are welcoming and caring. All boards have created new policies to support LGBTQ students and they will now come to life in your schools," Eggen’s open letter states.
"In the coming weeks, Alberta Education will be promoting new resources to make sure that schools are safe and welcoming. You can also reach out directly to my staff, who can help you ensure your rights are being respected," the letter states.
In a subsequent interview with the ATA News, Eggen said his ongoing consultation with school boards is going well.
"I know that boards are taking this very seriously and have worked hard on their policies," he said. "It’s been a collaborative approach I’ve chosen from the beginning and I intend to carry on that way."
Helen Clease, president of the Alberta School Boards Association, said in an emailed statement that school boards are on board.
"I’ve spoken to the minister and reassured him that, as the new year starts, school boards across the province remain committed to ensuring every child has a welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environment."
ATA president Mark Ramsankar said teachers have always provided safe environments for children in school and will continue to do so. He credited the minister for his efforts on the LGBTQ front but stressed that there are many more issues to address.
"I applaud the minister’s efforts but this is one file in a myriad of files that are going to need attention in the coming year," Ramsankar said. "We’ve got to continue to push the envelope on all active files in education."
On its website, the group Parents for Choice in Education, which has been critical of Eggen’s guidelines, criticized his open letter by saying it shows "apparent disregard of parental concerns."
"No policy should circumvent the primary care or educational choice that is the right of every parent," the posting states.
Wells estimated that roughly a third of Alberta’s 61 school boards have had no problem formulating policies in adherence with Eggen’s directive. Meanwhile, another third need support while the remaining third are reluctant or resistant to moving forward, he said.
He also noted that the ministry hasn’t made the policies public and most boards haven’t posted them on their websites.
"I think the public has a right to know," he said.
Teachers at risk
Wells said that teachers are "often the forgotten component of this equation," saying that he hears regularly from LGBTQ teachers who don’t feel supported, who feel they have to hide their relationships and who don’t feel they can fully be themselves in their classrooms.
"It compromises their ability to do their jobs but it also denies LGBTQ youth important role models in their classroom," Wells said.
"The unfortunate reality in the province of Alberta in 2016 is LGBTQ teachers are still being fired from their jobs and that is completely unacceptable."
Eggen said Alberta has laws and human rights legislation to prevent such discrimination but admitted there’s more work to do.
"By moving the rock over these last months, more attention has been placed on [LGBTQ rights]," he said. "Certainly we want to ensure that all workers, teachers, support staff are protected. ... We need to do more on this issue." ❚