Saturday, May 14, 2016

If You Give A Mouse A Cookie -- "Sanitizing" Sex-Ed

In a somewhat startling turn of events, it appears that a large number of grade one children in Thorncliffe Park are attending Health classes from the much-protested Ontario Health and Physical Education curriculum. Here's a part of what they're learning, from the 2015 curriculum document:


Human Development and Sexual Health
  1. C1.3  identify body parts, including genitalia (e.g., penis, testicles, vagina, vulva), using correct terminology [PS] 
    Teacher prompt: “We talk about all body parts with respect. Why is it important to know about your own body, and use correct names for the parts of your body?” 
    Student: “All parts of my body are a part of me, and I need to know how to take care of and talk about my own body. If I’m hurt or need help, and I know the right words, other people will know what I’m talking about.” 
There's a catch.

Two different classes are being taught. One group of grade one children will learn the above. Another group, said to be about forty percent of grade one students at North America's largest grades 1-5 public school, will be taught the same lesson with the substitute terminology, "private parts," standing in for words like penis, vulva, vagina, and testicles.

Now here's the backstory.

Thorncliffe Park was, by any odds, the epicentre of parent protests against the revised curriculum that was re-released early last year. As protests in some areas of the GTA struggled to gather steam, Thorncliffe became the symbol of the campaign. A week-long "strike" of schools last spring saw ninety-percent of Thorncliffe students absent -- for a curriculum that would not be activated for many more months. An extended strike, beginning September of 2015 saw hundreds of students out of school for much of the fall season. Organizers, dubbing themselves Thorncliffe Parents Association, staged classes in a nearby park, and later in a community centre housed within the local library.



I attended their first protest in March of 2015, which was said to have drawn up to a thousand participants. The anger and vitriol of the crowd were palpable. Underpinning their efforts were preposterous assertions that Premier Wynne was planning to convert as many Ontarians as possible from heterosexual to homosexual, and that the curriculum document was a covert tool to sexualize children and make them vulnerable to pedophiles.


Thorncliffe Protest, March 14, 2015 -- Photo by Gordon Nore
Thorncliffe Park principal Jeff Crane had a crisis on his hands. Here he was, presiding over a vast inner-city school with a splendid reputation, and he was trying to convince parents to send their kids back to it. Mr Crane appeared in the media, explaining that the protests were driven by an extreme group of parents that he could not reach. Over the course of many weeks, he met with parents in small groups, going over the curriculum in detail. In time, the student population was mostly restored. Mostly, some students never returned, and the school's staff was reduced by three teaching positions.

And now the health curriculum rolls out.

In a May 13th article published The Toronto Star by education reporter Kristen Rushowey, Mr Crane explains how the compromise was reached: 
“We let parents know ahead of time when the health strands for human development were being taught and, for Grade 1, that there would be one lesson where there would be discussion of body parts … They were told if learning the names of genitalia was a concern, they could write me a letter requesting a religious accommodation,” said Crane, whose school is located in the riding represented by Premier Kathleen Wynne, who championed the updated health curriculum.
And this is where the story goes south. A number of critics of the revised curriculum are asking -- and it's a good question -- what does appropriate terminology have to do with accommodating religious beliefs? Again, the offending words from the document are vagina, vulva, penis and testicles. 

The rationale? Jeff Crane explains in the star article:
Crane said things like learning the names of body parts is a worry for Muslim parents in the school, “because, the way it has been explained to me, it’s a very modest culture, a modest religions, where speaking about anything to do with genitalia is something not brought up until children are older.”
Health education experts, law enforcement professionals, prosecutors, and the medical community agree that it is crucial that young children be able to describe accurately their genitalia as a line of defence against sexual assault. Children who can do so, it is believed, are better able to enforce no-touch boundaries and to report when these boundaries have been breached. Assigning non-specific terms to genitalia reinforces shame and secrecy, and also makes it much more difficult to interview a child who may have been victimized. 

According to some reports, children are most vulnerable to sexual assault between the ages of five and nine. Delaying this conversation because of modesty is a disservice. How many child sex abuse survivors do we need before this point gets across. Imagine a child being interviewed by a children's aid worker or detective: "I'm not allowed to talk about down there."

Alex McKay, Executive Director of the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada, echoes the same concerns on CBC Toronto's Metro Morning program with Matt Galloway:


According to a spokesperson for Education Minister Liz Sandals was asked to comment for the Toronto Star story, “we value the full range of diversity among our students and aim to create safe, inclusive and accepting school environments that support the achievement and well-being of all students. We want students to be in the classroom and learning.”

So, the Ministry has nothing to say on the matter.


"If you give a mouse a cookie, 
he's going to ask for a glass of milk."

Sexual health educator Lyba Spring, also quoted in the Star, sees the thin edge of the wedge:
“They are already subverting the curriculum … what happens especially in Grades 5 and 6, when they are talking about sexual intercourse … because they are talking about the prevention of sexually transmitted infections? What happens as they are talking about consent? I can just see parents’ minds working, and at every step of the way, they will try and subvert and disrespect the curriculum.
“If schools ‘accommodate’ at this early stage in the game, they are setting themselves up for real battles later on, and the only ones who are going to suffer are the kids.”
Carly Basian, of My Sex Ed, agrees. From her Facebook post:
...who are these accommodations for? Parents. Who are we teaching? Not parents! Many students are curious about the new sex ed curriculum and are eager to learn. Of course, we must respect religious views and personal outlooks, but our curriculum is not offensive - it teaches students information that has been empirically supported (the revised curriculum was developed by experts in the field, including psychologists, experienced teachers and sex educators). Not to mention, a lot of the controversial topics (e.g. gender identity and sexual orientation) is something that is embraced and celebrated in Canada. We have laws protecting folks who identify on any part of the spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity, so it is fitting to talk about it with our students - who are not exempt from falling somewhere along the aforementioned spectrum.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter. A health curriculum is meant to teach children about their bodies. Their human bodies. Not Muslim bodies, or Christian bodies, or even atheist bodies. The normal growth and change in these bodies will proceed regardless of what language they speak at home; what house of worship they attend. In all the discussion of so-called "parental rights" vs educational expertise, there is one point that cannot be ignored. These children own their bodies and will have to live in them, regardless of many parents scream and yell at school buildings.