The Edmonton Catholic school board ponders its new policy on inclusion for students and staff at its March 15 meeting.

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

The Edmonton Catholic school board ponders its new policy on inclusion for students and staff at its March 15 meeting.

April 4, 2016
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

The board of Edmonton Catholic Schools has passed a revised inclusion policy that most trustees believe will protect sexually diverse students, staff and their families.

But according to dissenting trustees Patricia Grell and board chair Marilyn Bergstra, the page-and-a-half policy is too vague to offer much protection to LGBTQ students and staff. Some parents were also disappointed.

In the policy, which passed first, second and third readings March 15 by a five-to-two vote, the board commits itself to providing "a fully inclusive community and a welcoming, respectful, safe and Catholic environment" in all the schools.

This environment, the policy continues, is to be "free from discrimination of any type, including but not limited to, discrimination based on race, colour, gender identity, gender expression, age, physical and mental characteristics, nationality, sexual orientation, family status or marital status."

Education Minister David Eggen said he will review the policy along with others submitted by school boards across Alberta by a March 31 deadline.

The mother of a transgender girl who is proceeding with a human rights complaint against the board said the newly-approved policy "does not protect LGBTQ students in the Catholic school system."

She called on Eggen "to stand up and start protecting his students."

As is, the Catholic policy "leaves too much room for interpretation and that's where kids are going to be hurt," she said.

The board started working on a policy more than a year ago after the woman's seven-year-old transgender daughter was told to use only a gender-neutral washroom at her school. The school later reversed its policy allowing the child to use the girls' washroom.

The new policy is different than the stand-alone policy that the board had worked on for most of last year and to which it gave second reading in December. That policy dealt specifically with the rights of transgender students and staff.

According to trustee John Acheson, the board's vice chair, the revised policy addresses the board's position that all children should be provided with a safe environment.

MINISTER'S DIRECTIVE

It also complies with the minister of education's directive that the board have a policy of inclusion that responds to the needs of transgender students, he said.

It further meets the need to ensure that the board recognizes all federal and provincial human rights legislation and the need to be in communion with other Catholic boards and the archbishop of Edmonton, Acheson said.

The new policy addressed the fact "we are a Catholic school district and as such operate from a Catholic world view wherein we see every person as one created by God and thus inherently sacred," he said.

Acheson said the policy incorporates, to varying degrees, all the positions put forward by the major players involved in the discussion over the past year.

"Nothing has changed," said a disappointed Marni Panas, a Catholic transgender woman.

DISCRIMINATION

"We had language like this 18 months ago when a (transgender) child was discriminated against. It was expected that the stand-alone policy would be delivered today. It wasn't and the research shows that without a stand-alone policy those more vulnerable groups are not protected by vague policies," she said.

Panas said the stand-alone policy that was given second reading in December "as bad as it was, was still better than what we have today."

"We don't see LGBTQ at all (in the new policy). So how is that inclusive?" asked Panas.

Grell said she could not support the policy because it is "too generic and doesn't specifically address the concerns of the LGBTQ students in our schools."

A vague policy will lead to vague regulations that won't give staff meaningful guidance on how to handle delicate issues, Grell said.

"This policy on inclusion is something I very much support," said trustee Debbie Engel. "I just can't imagine voting against a policy that includes everyone."

PROTECTIONS OFFERED

After listing the protections the policy offers, trustee Laura Thibert said, "I believe in my good judgment that this policy in front of us today supports the law."

Bergstra acknowledged the policy is inclusive but said it doesn't offer the protection that a stand-alone policy would.

"Given that (this policy) does not guarantee the fullest measure of protection and privacy for our transgendered youth, I will not support this motion," the board chair said.

In a written statement March 16, Eggen commended the board for its effort to agree on a policy and said he will review it after it is submitted - along with other policies he has already received and expects to receive before the March 31 deadline.

"I will then provide feedback, keeping in mind the government's commitment to ensuring all students are guaranteed basic human rights, and that all schools are welcoming, caring, respectful and safe."