Alberta parents won’t be notified if their child belongs to a gay-straight alliance, or any other school club, should a newly introduced bill pass.
Bill 24, introduced in the legislature Thursday by Education Minister David Eggen, would also close legal loopholes in the School Act that some schools have used to delay students’ requests to start a gay-straight alliance or similar club.
“I am so grateful that this government is making changes to ensure that these spaces remain safe for all students,” said Grade 12 student Ace Peace in a government news release Thursday.
Eggen is also attempting to enshrine in law a requirement for all schools — public, Catholic, Francophone, charter, and private — to have a safe schools policy. It must affirm students’ rights under the Alberta Human Rights Act and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and be approved by schools or boards by April 1, 2018.
Eggen had previously issued a ministerial order requiring all school authorities to write such policies. About 20 — mostly independent schools — had not complied nearly two years after the deadline, he has said.
Those policies must be posted publicly and prominently online by June 30, 2018, and provided upon request, the bill proposes.
The legislation also follows a consultant’s recommendation to require private schools to establish anti-bullying codes of conduct that prohibit discrimination based on gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. The School Act already compels public and charter schools to do this, but not independent schools.
The amendments, if passed, are intended to strengthen legislation first passed by the former Progressive Conservative government in 2015. Then known as Bill 10, the previous legislation compelled schools to create a gay-straight alliance when a student requested one, and required most schools to adopt anti-bullying policies to protect students.
If the new amendments are adopted, a school principal must immediately approve any requests for the LGBTQ peer-support clubs, and find a staff member, or other qualified adult, to advise and oversee the gay-straight alliance in a “timely manner.” Principals would not be allowed to elevate those requests to the school district or school board for approval.
Bill 24 also seeks to protect students’ privacy by adding clauses to a section of the School Act that requires schools to tell parents when human sexuality or religion will be the focus of classroom lessons. The law would clarify the requirement to tell parents does not apply to students’ participation in school clubs. Schools would be allowed to send parents a general notification that a gay-straight alliance club exists.
Schools would also need to clarify which piece of privacy legislation applies to students. Privacy legislation considers sexual orientation or gender identity “personal information” that an institution can only release under certain conditions.
“Our top priority is for schools across Alberta to be safe and welcoming for all students, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression,” Eggen said in a press release Thursday.
Proposed legislation also gives the education minister the power to do an investigation, or a more in-depth inquiry, into any school he or she suspects is breaking the law. The minister could withhold public funds, or cancel accreditation for a school that refuses to comply.
If a principal refuses to create a gay-straight alliance upon request, a student, parent, or teacher could report the incident as suspected professional misconduct to the Alberta Teachers’ Association, which regulates teachers and principals.
Although privacy law, the teachers’ code of conduct, and many school boards’ policies already prevent most staff from “outing” a gay student, Eggen has said ambiguity from newly-elected United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney necessitates putting specific rules in law.
“There are circumstances where it’s totally inappropriate for parents to be informed and circumstances where it’s entirely appropriate for them to help their kids when they’re going through a challenging time,” Kenney said in August.
The move is controversial, with proponents saying youth risk rejection, homelessness and suicide if their families discover they are LGBTQ. Opponents say student safety is at risk if parents are not informed and allowed to be involved with their children’s lives.