Experts say policy changes misguided as province grapples with high STI, teen pregnancy and abuse rates.
Experts and other critics say the Saskatchewan government’s decision to limit comprehensive sexual health education in schools is concerning.
On Tuesday morning, Minister of Education Dustin Duncan said teachers are no longer allowed to invite third-party educators into their classrooms for lessons on sexual health education.
As an example in the ministry cited the ARC Foundation and its SOGI 123 program, which offers resources to educators promoting an inclusive approach to sexual orientation and gender identity, but does not specifically include sex education in its lesson modules.
Parents will also have the opportunity to opt their kids out of “all or part” of the Human Sexuality unit taught in the province’s schools, according to Duncan’s letter sent to all chairs of boards of education in the province.
Duncan has said these policy changes were made so “students can be successful and that parents are more involved in their children’s education.”
However, experts worry the changes will actually put students at risk.
“To provide comprehensive sexual education can be very difficult, especially spanning multiple grades, and that is very often why educators seek out our assistance,” said Caitlin Cottrell, who is the executive director of Saskatoon Sexual Health — one of the organizations that is now banned from working with students in classrooms.
Cottrell said there seems to be a misunderstanding about what Saskatoon Sexual Health teaches.
“We are not teaching children how to have sex. We are not teaching children or youth about promiscuity. We are teaching safety,” she said.
“What we spend a lot of time discussing is consent and boundaries, relationship dynamics.”
She said they also focus on age-appropriate lessons about sexually-transmitted infections and contraception, which is especially important in a province that consistently has high rates of teen pregnancy, Hepatitis C, HIV, syphilis and chlamydia.
“Our purpose is to provide education to youth so they can avoid the negative outcomes,” she said, adding they can offer students support and advice in a non-judgmental, evidence-based manner.
Cottrell said it’s also often easier for students to speak with outside educators about topics or situations they might perceive as “embarrassing,” rather than with teachers they have to interact with every day, Cottrell said.
“It can often be easier to ask someone who, for lack of a better term, doesn’t necessarily have a stake in their game. We are here for a specific thing, and then you don’t necessarily need to see us ever again.”
Child psychiatrist troubled by policy change
Saskatoon child psychiatrist Tamara Hinz said she found the province’s announcement troubling.
“I was very surprised and very disappointed,” Hinz said. “I think there’s real harm in othering education around reproductive health and consent compared to other parts of the curriculum.”
Hinz said there are many studies that show strong correlations between the lack of sex education or poor quality sex education and rates of sexually transmitted infections and unwanted or teen pregnancies.
“It’s just really astonishing to me that we would be taking a step back in that kind of really important education.”
In its new policy, the government has also mandated that Saskatchewan schools must now inform parents about the sexual health education curriculum, and let them opt out of it on behalf of their children.
Julian Wotherspoon, executive director of Planned Parenthood Regina, said Saskatchewan’s high STI, teen pregnancy and domestic abuse numbers are not going to be helped by allowing people to pick and choose what information children get.
“I think this is an overstep by the government, and then also perhaps just a misunderstanding of our role as parents,” said Wotherspoon, who is a mother.
“When my children come home to me with material that they’ve heard in the classroom that they have questions about, that’s a gift. Schools are a place for our children to go out and get that wider view of what is out there in the world. And it’s our job as parents to bring them home and to have conversations with them.”
The policy shift comes after an incident at Lumsden High School in June, in which a student picked up sex. ed. material with graphic content that had been brought to the school by a Planned Parenthood sexual health presenter. That led to Duncan directing school boards to suspend any upcoming presentations with Planned Parenthood Regina.
When asked about it on Tuesday, Duncan said that the situation “partly” led to the policy shift, but that there were other factors as well, such as feedback from teachers and parents about the sex ed. curriculum.
Wotherspoon, of Planned Parenthood, said teachers should be teaching more sex education, but that they aren’t equipped to do that right now.
“They don’t have readily available tools,” Wotherspoon said. “We would much rather support educators so that they have the tools that they need to do that effectively.”
Education can inform students to make decisions
Jasmin Ogren wants educators grappling with these policy changes to know that there are resources for teachers on the Saskatchewan Prevention Institute’s website.
The institute is a provincial non-profit that advocates for children’s health, and provides evidence-based resources and information for educators on a variety of subjects, including sexual health education.
Ogren, who is the sexual and reproductive health program co-ordinator for the institute, echoed others’ concerns about Saskatchewan’s high rates of STIs and teen pregnancy. She added that the province’s rates of sexual violence are also among the highest in the country.
“This really indicates unsafe and non-consensual behaviours, so effective, comprehensive sexual health education is important to address potential gaps in knowledge and to help ensure that youth have information and skills that they need to make informed decisions.”
Ogren said schools are a well-positioned setting for students to learn about these topics, because “they’re the only formal education institution that has meaningful interactions that are mandatory with nearly every young person.”
‘Not responsible leadership’: NDP
Saskatchewan NDP Leader Carla Beck called the new sexual education policy “harmful.”
“Disappointed isn’t the right word for it. But it’s a new low,” she said.
Parents have always had the ability to know what their children are learning about in school, she said.
“They’ve always had the ability to go to the school or pick up the phone and talk to the teacher to exclude their children from particular lessons if that was their choice.”
The Opposition advocates for age appropriate, evidence-based sex education, Beck said.
“The government has seen fit to suggest that more information is the problem here. It’s not responsible leadership,” she said.
Source : CBCNEWS