Stock photo by Kylli Kittus on Unsplash
Comox Valley parents leading BC schools toward expanded sexual health education
First in a series examining the state of sexual health education in public schools
A couple of generations ago, it was controversial for elementary and high school teachers to talk to students about “the birds and the bees.” Only a handful of British Columbia school districts dared to offer locally developed programs. Even as recent as the early 1980s, many school boards were banning or limiting sex education because trustees still considered it the sole perorgative of parents.
Times have changed, and so has the public’s mood.
There’s a general acceptance today that sexual health education needs to be part of our public schools’ core curriculum. It’s being driven in large part by the ever-increasing student exposure to online and social media dangers through technology, as well as disconcerting trends toward increased sexual violence among teenagers.
A University of Calgary study published last week found that one in four teens between the ages of 12 and 17 have received sexually explicit texts or videos, one in seven have sent them and one in eight have forwarded ‘sexts’ on to other teens without consent. And, the study involving 42,000 participants determined that sexting is linked to teenage anxiety, depression and substance use.
Also last week, the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada released its first revision since 2008 of the Canadian Guidelines for Sexual Health Education. The major change found in the new guidelines is the addition of technology, LGBTQ12S+ and ‘consent’ as foundational education pillars, issues that weren’t on the radar of previous generations of students and parents.
But these are the issues that have motivated and mobilized a growing number of Comox Valley public school parents to press School District 71, and the provincial Ministry of Education, for a more robust and relevant curriculum for sexual health education.
In fact, Comox Valley parents are leading British Columbia in this direction. They have recently received unanimous support from parents across the province’s school districts, and their efforts have earned the ear of BC Parliamentary Secretary for Gender Equality Mitzi Dean and BC Education Minister Rob Fleming.
Courtenay Lawyer Shannon Aldinger is one of the parents who has been advocating for better sexual health education (SHE) in Comox Valley schools. She represents the Ecole Puntledge Park Elementary Parents Advisory Council at the District Parents Advisory Council (DPAC), and chairs that group’s select committee on sexual health education.
Last month, Aldinger presented a resolution to the BC Conference of Parent Advisory Councils annual general meeting that urged the Ministry of Education to expand the BC sexual health curriculum to Grades 11 and 12 — it currently ends at Grade 10 — and to include the concept of consent as well as modern tech issues, such as the risks associated with sexting and online pornography.
The resolution was passed unanimously by the 205 parent delegates to the AGM, representing 42 of the province’s 60 school districts, including seven Comox Valley schools represented at the AGM. Four other SD71 schools supported the resolution but were not eligible to vote.
It was a landmark moment for expanding sexual health education in BC.
The vote of support from 70 percent of all BC school districts not only pushes sexual health education toward a richer and more relevant curriculum, it also shines a positive light on almost two years of advocacy work by Comox Valley parents for better sexual health education in SD71.
“The clear message from the conference is that parents across BC, including PACs across our district, including all three of our secondary school PACS, support these requests,” Aldinger told Decafnation.
Passage of the resolution denotes a major victory for sexual health education improvements at the BC level, which parent advocates hope will trickle down to individual districts.
Two weeks ago, Aldinger made a similar presentation for expanded sexual health education in the BC curriculum to the province’s Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services during its 2020 budget consultations, and won support from Parliamentary Secretary Mitzi Dean.
“To be in an age where we can have somebody like you who can come and talk about such an area that is really quite taboo and to come and present such a well-researched and comprehensive proposal, I really welcome it. And you have my commitment to taking this forward,” Dean said after Aldinger’s presentation.
Background of sexual health education in SD71
Since 2010, School District 71 has relied on an outside consultant, Dr. Claire Vanston of Nanaimo, to design and implement its sexual health education program. But in mid-2017, Vanston announced she would no longer provide this service beyond the 2019 school year.
In partial response to Vanston’s impending departure, and also to address parent requests for an expanded program, School District 71 commissioned former superintendent Clyde Woolman in December of 2017 to report on the state of sexual health education in Comox Valley schools.
In his report dated Jan. 16, 2018, Woolman discusses a wide variety of issues. Among them is whether teachers at the time were actually teaching sexual health.
According to Woolman, when the district hired Vanston as its outside sexual health educator, most teachers regarded her as the primary program delivery vehicle, and assumed they did not have to teach the material themselves. Woolman’s report says Vanston also believed teachers held that perception.
It’s a misconception that School District 71 Superintendent Dean Lindquist acknowledges.
“We’d relied on an expert to the point where we weren’t teaching it,” Lindquist told Decafnation. “We wouldn’t do that in math or the sciences. I then realized we had no capacity (to teach sexual health education). I had assumed teachers were teaching the curriculum and Dr. Claire was functioning as a resource.”
So the district shifted gears. During the current 2019 school year Vanston did not teach the material to students directly. Instead, she focused on coaching teachers to teach the SHE curriculum, and then reviewed their progress.
She has also provided the district with lesson plans and other resources. Her contract with the district ended this month.
“We have been building capacity in the last year,” Lindquist said. “We have amazing teachers in this district and I have faith they will do it (teach sexual health) well, and already are. It would blow your socks off what our teachers are doing.”
Aldinger agrees. She says Comox Valley teachers have received good training and support this past year and are doing a good job with the new material.
“We (the district PAC sexual health committee) hope that the district will continue to support the teachers with additional training opportunities and resources each year,” she said.
The DPAC committee also hopes the district will bring in external speakers for presentations that teachers may not be comfortable teaching, such as the interplay between sexuality and technology, including the risks associated with sexting and adolescent use of online pornography.
Confidence about teaching sexual health — a topic that requires sensitivity and up-to-date language usage — varies among teachers.
Woolman reported that Comox Valley classroom teachers have had no specific training in sexual health education, and most would feel uncomfortable “and even vulnerable” discussing sexual issues.
“While it may be that a few Physical Health Education teachers may feel reasonably competent and comfortable teaching the health material … the vast majority of PHE teachers will not,” Woolman said in last year’s report.
Improvements made this year
At the time of the Woolman report, the school district only funded sexual health education for grades 1, 3, 5, 7, 8 and 10, and sometimes for only 60 minutes per year. And, in previous years, grade 1 students received no sexual health education.
In response, individual school Parent Advisory Councils had been doing their own fundraising to pay for additional sexual health education time or to cover the topic in the other grades.
But in this last year, according to Vanston, roughly 90 percent to 95 percent of SD71 students now receive sexual health classes every year from kindergarten through grade 10.
“The increase in students receiving sexual health education in our district is a significant improvement from past years,” Aldinger said.
Next: Has SD71 made sexual health education a priority?
Sexual health is a key component of overall health, well-being, and quality of life. It is a major determining factor in the well-being of individuals, partners, families, and communities. Furthermore, the sexual health of people in Canada has important social and economic implications for the country. Therefore, the development and implementation of comprehensive sexual health education aimed at enhancing sexual health and well-being and preventing outcomes that negatively impact sexual health should be a public policy priority.
GOALS OF SEXUAL HEALTH EDUCATION
The goal of comprehensive sexual health education is for all people to gain the skills and knowledge required to maintain healthy bodies, healthy relationships, a healthy body image and to know what to do in unsafe situations.
Quality sexual health education has a direct impact on preventing negative outcomes, and promoting positive ones.
WHAT IS SEXTING?
Sexting involves creating, sending, receiving or sharing sexual messages, images and/or videos using the Internet and/or electronic devices. Commonly these types of messages are intended only for the recipient; however, the sender has little control over these messages becoming public. It is illegal to produce, possess or distribute naked or sexually explicit pictures and/or videos of young people under 18 years of age.
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Comox Valley students with mental health or substance use issues will have a new and more easily accessible pathway for help starting sometime in December
How does sexual health education in Comox Valley schools compare with other school districts and with other provinces?
Sexual health education has become an important topic in District 71 and around the province because social media and access to online pornography have created a crisis of sexual issues in our schools
Comox Valley parents are leading the province in sexual health education advocacy, and shining a light on gaps in School District 71 that have led to significant improvements
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