Third in a series examining the state of sexual health education in public schools
Comox Valley parents have led the BC movement for expanded sexual health education in public schools, and they have received wide support from both education officials and parents across the province.
But why has sexual health education become such an important topic? And why are parents focused on expanding the BC curriculum into grades 11 and 12, and insisting that it include components about the concept of ‘consent’ and online safety?
According to members of the District 71 Parents Advisory Council’s special committee on sexual health education, smartphones, social media and access to online pornography have created a crisis of sexual issues among our youth and in our schools.
“Teens in our schools are being sexually harassed on a regular basis. Boys they don’t even know, but who are friends of friends on social media send girls messages asking for nude pictures. It’s so constant that some girls are apprehensive about going to school out of fear of being asked for pictures,” Brooke Finlayson told Decafnation. “Deleting these requests and blocking the senders has become a part of their daily ritual.”
And the harassment doesn’t end with sexting. Denying these requests can lead to bullying. Complying leads to long-term humiliation. Once you hit send, you can never take it back.
Finlayson says it’s a scary new world for educators, teens and their parents.
“I’m not so worried about the creepy old guy down the block these days. I know how to deal with him,” Finlayson said. “I’m worried about the 14-year-old boy sexting my daughter, cyberbullying her or other ways of sexually harassing her.”
Online sexual harassment has become so prevalent, say Finlayson and Jenn Fisher, another member of the DPAC sexual health committee, that teens no longer report any but the most traumatic incidents.
And that is what worries District 71 Superintendent Dean Lindquist the most.
“I’m concerned about the iceberg rule,” Lindquist told Decafnation. “It’s what’s not reported to us, it’s what’s going on beneath the surface that worries me.”
WHAT IS HAPPENING IN OUR SCHOOLS?
A simple online search will bring up multiple cases of sexual harassment among teens.
Three boys in Kamloops charged with child pornography for distributing nude photos of girls without their consent, six students charged with sexual assault in Toronto, a Victoria girl charged with possession and distribution of child pornography for sexting nude photos of her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend.
A recent University of Calgary study 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 if it’s happening elsewhere, it’s happening here.
Wendy Morin, the co-founder of Comox Valley Girls Group and who leads weekly group discussions for teenage girls, who is also a Courtenay City Councillor, estimates that at least five percent of locally reported sexual assault cases occur on school property.
While most sexual assaults go unreported among teens, as well as in the adult population, the Courtenay RCMP have received a half-dozen reports in the last six months involving secondary school students.
In addition, Comox Valley Family Services also confirms it handles sex-related incidents not reported to the police, but that come through school counsellors, family members or the teenagers themselves.
Morin said teachers are usually unaware of trauma that may exist within students who skip classes. She said the students may not attend because of a sexual assault by a classmate and they can’t face that person in the same room.
“Too often a girl has to make accommodations for the situation, move out of class or a school,” she told Decafnation. “Usually (there is) no solid proof to discipline the boy and without blame (it) implies innocence … but the girl carries the burden forever.”
Jenn Fisher has knowledge of girls being pressured to send nude pictures or receiving nude pictures of male body parts, of 10-year-old girls trying to be cool and joining in text threads filled with racist, misogynist comments and of students creating “meme pages” on Instagram meant to represent teachers as well as students.
“Some teachers walk the school hallways with their head down out of fear of a picture showing up online of them unintentionally looking the wrong way,” she told Decafnation.
Just recently, the parents of a Highland school girl reported to the RCMP that someone had uploaded their daughter’s picture and personal information to a porn site without her knowledge or consent. She may not have been the only victim.
“The level of harassment in our schools indicates a lack of education and understanding about the ramifications of their (students) decisions,” Fisher told Decafnation. “We have a sexual health education deficit.”
SEXUAL HEALTH IN GRADES 11 & 12
Because many of the most serious and complex sexual harassment issues occur among older students, Comox Valley parents have pressed District 71 and the Ministry of Education to expand its sexual health curriculum into the schedules of grade 11 and 12 students.
At present, BC does not require sexual health education after Grade 10.
But, according to Statistics Canada, girls ages 15 to 17 report the highest rate of gender-based violence among all age groups, and McCreary Centre’s most recent BC Adolescent Health Survey (2018) reported that the rates of sexual abuse, dating violence and sexual harassment had increased from its previous survey five years ago.
It’s a decision that has confounded parents as well as sexual health experts like Jennifer Gibson, the coordinator of Community Education Services for Island Sexual Health.
“Research consistently tells us that as youth age, those who choose to be sexually active are more likely to do so within this age group. Yet, we withdraw formal opportunities to access this information at the same time … when the information has the most practical relevance to their lives,” Gibson told Decafnation.
“That to me (admitting my complete bias) is nonsensical,” she said.
To date, education administrators and trustees have defended the exclusion of grade 11 and 12 students based on higher academic pressures.
District 71 Superintendent Dean Lindquist says there’s no room in the schedule of grade 11 and 12 students. He says sexual health programs would have to be taught outside of regular school hours.
Janice Canton, chair of the District 71 Board of Trustees, agrees.
“At the moment, there are no plans to extend sexual health education at the grade 11 or 12 levels. The reality is that the majority of courses (for them) are electives in nature. That is student choice, so mandating a course more than likely would not work,” she told Decafnation on June 21.
But that argument doesn’t convince the professional sexual health educators.
“If the argument is that senior students have a large academic load, why not be creative in the delivery methods and integrate sexual health education into all areas of the education curriculum?” Gibson said. “Let’s look beyond the basic sexual health talk. There is no shortage of opportunities to include sexuality discussions in all topic areas.”
Kerri Isham, a sexual health educator and founder of Power Up Workshops, says the topic should be delivered in grades 11 and 12 “when youth are starting to be sexually active.”
“I have taught up to grade 12 in several of my schools in BC. This was negotiated at a school level with counsellors, teachers and principals in both public and private schools,” she told Decafnation. “It is a choice and a priority. Where there is a will, there is a way.”
A FOCUS ON TECHNOLOGY
In today’s digital world, most children have online access to explicit photographs and videos.
So parents have also asked District 71 and the BC Ministry of Education to add content “relating to the interplay between sexual health and technology,” according to a resolution proposed by Shannon Aldinger of the Ecole Puntledge Parks Elementary Parents Advisory Council and passed unanimously by all 42 of the province’s school districts attending a recent conference of parent groups.
The current curriculum doesn’t address technology or social media issues directly or comprehensively.
Dr. Claire Vanston, a sexual health education expert who has provided programming for District 71 for many years, contends that the average age of a child’s first exposure to online pornography is around 11 or 12. Canadian studies show that 90 percent of 14-year-old boys and 60 percent of same-aged girls had watched sexually explicit online materials.
Isabel McKinnon, the community-based victim service worker and coordinator of sexual assault for Comox Valley Family Services Association, says online pornography is an increasing factor and a deeper underlying issue in sexual harassment.
“Nobody wants to talk about that,” she told Decafnation. “But young men get the idea that this is how women want to be treated. It can be an addiction.”
Wendy Morin, who has 20 years of experience dealing with victims of sexual pressure, laments that porn is filling the gap in sexual health education.
“With pornography, kids hyperspeed through the normal sexual experience,” she told Decafnation. “It affects what they think is appropriate.”
The prevalence of smartphone and other devices in schools that connect to the Internet through the school’s wi-fi network have added to these issues for educators. In District 71, each school makes its own rules regarding phone and tablet usage.
WHAT IS THE SCHOOL’S OBLIGATION?
Superintendent Lindquist says District 71 has to balance the views of parents advocating for more sexual health education with those of parents who want less.
“Not all parents agree on sexual health education,” Lindquist says.
However, in the SD71 Parent Advisory Council, 11 schools voted in favor or otherwise endorsed the Ecole Puntledge Park’s resolution for expanded sexual health education. Those schools were Airport Elementary, Arden Elementary, Aspen Elementary, Brooklyn Elementary, Cumberland Elementary, Highland Secondary, Huband Elementary, Mark Isfeld Secondary, Puntledge Elementary, Robb Road Elementary and Vanier Secondary.
And a recent School District 71 public survey asking for feedback on its five-year strategic plan elicited scores of request for more sexual health education and none for less of it.
Jennifer Gibson of Island Sexual Health says most parents want more.
“I have had the privilege of working with more than 100,000 youth, parents and educators and the vast majority overwhelmingly tell me how they want more opportunities to receive this information, not less,” she said.
District 71 School Trustee Sheila McDonnell says, “Ideally, sexual health education would be taught at home.”
“Yeah, but what if it isn’t,” she said. “Schools have to find a way to support it.”
Jenn Fisher agrees.
“Parents have a responsibility, for sure, but the school does too, to fill in the gaps. It’s a collaboration,” she said.
Ultimately, say Fisher and Finlayson, parents and the school district have the same goal: to keep our kids safe.
Finlayson says trustees and district administrators have to recognize that it isn’t the same world in today’s schools that they remember.
“When I was in school, stuff happened at the lake. Stuff happened at the beach. But there wasn’t any social media then,” she said.
Sexual assault was a quiet problem during her school years, she says, and 30 years later, the silence is still being held by young women. Social media has reinforced the silence due to the ramifications of reporting incidents of assault or harassment.
Wendy Morin sees the need for specific sexual health education aimed at boys. She points to programs like the White Ribbon Campaign and Project Respect that intervene to change male cultures.
“We need programs that teach impulse control and consent,” she said.
Next: How other districts and other provinces handle sexual health education