The Ontario government’s plan to replace the current Health and Physical Education Curriculum with the 1998 version because of some vocal opposition to the sexual health component has serious implications for students’ health and safety. That’s certainly the perspective of teachers and parents who are well aware of the important information that is conveyed to students in the current curriculum.
The 1998 curriculum was written before the Internet and social media were integrated into students’ daily lives and before they faced cyberbullying or sexting. It pre-dates legal same-sex marriage and the addition of gender identity and expression to the Ontario Human Rights Code.
Society has changed and evolved over 20 years. We owe it to our students to give them the knowledge and skills they need to learn and be safe in today’s society. Here’s why.
Elementary teachers encounter young students who don’t have the language to communicate about inappropriate sexual touching or abuse. Many remain innocently unaware of how inappropriate messaging and sexting can lead to humiliation, breach of privacy, cyber-bullying and serious long-term consequences.
Older students struggle with consent and don’t always know how to address peer sexual behaviour that makes them feel uncomfortable. They also need reliable information about sexually transmitted infection (STIs). Without informed discussions about body image, students constantly subjected to media stereotypes may suffer from low self-esteem and social alienation.
Although teachers and other school staff will use their professional judgement when issues like bullying or questions related to gender identity arise in the classroom, reverting back to the 1998 curriculum limits the opportunity to prepare students to safely navigate the complex world of 2018.
The government made an election promise to open further consultations on the sex-ed portion of the curriculum despite the fact that the previous government held an unprecedented level of consultation with educators, students, parents, faculties of education, colleges and health experts. More than 70 health-related organizations also submitted reports for consideration and in 2014, more than 4,000 parents were involved in the consultation process.
A small minority of vocal religious and socially conservative parents oppose the current curriculum; many appear misinformed about what is actually in the curriculum document that guides classroom discussion. These parents have a right to voice their opinions and to discuss their concerns with their child’s teachers and school administrators, but they should not have the ability to turn the clock back on an updated curriculum that the polls indicate are supported by a majority of Ontarians.
Why put students at risk? Any further consultations should take place while leaving the current curriculum in place.
We know from research and practice that having the language to name our body parts, being empowered to understand consent and healthy relationships, and being able to address issues such as sexism and homophobia helps kids navigate their social worlds and in some cases, saves their lives. It’s essential that schools be allowed to continue to equip students with these critical life skills.