Teaching human rights

Some home school educators unimpressed at proposed Education Act

In Alberta, about 16 000 students are either homeschooled or in a blended education program. For some of those students, and their families and educators, the proposed 2012 Education Act held a perceived challenge to their right to educate based on faith or principled teachings.

Section 16 of the proposed act, entitled “diversity and respect,” incorporated the principles of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as the Alberta Human Rights Act into the education curriculum. Some home-school educators saw it as an affront to faith-based education and vocally contested this inclusion. Over 2000 individuals marched to the legislature on March 19, and, up until the bill’s death, encouraged letter-writing campaigns. Many posted sample letters for concerned citizens to send to their MLAs or newspaper comment sections. One such person, Tim Gallant, posted a sample letter to his blog outlining his concerns over section 16: “In particular, it in essence prohibits Christian home educators (and others who share a basic biblical worldview) from teaching the biblical view that homosexual acts are wrong (“sinful”). This proscription applies, even though Christians teach kindness and love toward sinners; it is the intent of the Alberta Human Rights Act, and therefore Bill 2, to normalize and justify homosexual acts, period.”

Not every home-school educator saw it as that black and white though. Mary Siever, a home educator to her five children, commented, “I have no problem with ensuring human rights are upheld and that hate material or teaching should not be allowed, but it just worries me that this could branch out and be misinterpreted or misrepresented by someone who doesn’t agree with how a parent, or anyone else is educating a child.”

The Home School Legal Defense Association, a national organization,  followed the debate closely through its website. It stated the bill was a threat to parents because, as the group describes on its website, “It essentially makes parents subject to the Alberta Human Rights Act when they interact with their own children in their own homes.” The HSLDA was encouraging the dissasociation of home schooling from the definition of a “school” under the act or an exemption for home schools from section 16.

Once the bill died on the order paper due to the election call, the HSLDA issued a strong message to those who fought to eliminate section 16, ” … this legislation is not necessarily dead forever. The Conservatives in Alberta have given many indications that they will be bringing this legislation back if they are elected for another term. We encourage our members to very carefully consider their political choices in this election.”

Education takes place in a community and is the result of relationships. A 2003 report from the Alberta Teachers’ Association, “Trying to Teach, Trying to Learn: Listening to Students,” delves into the importance of relationships: “Programs, technology, formal outcomes, plans and methods notwithstanding, learning ultimately depends on the complex relationship among the teacher, the students and the subject matter.” Educators work with their students to foster a culture that accepts certain values.

The Alberta Human Rights Act is principally based on a mandate to foster equality and to reduce discrimination, and the inclusion has been applauded by spokespeople for the Alberta Teachers’ Association. In his March 27 editorial for the ATA News, Jonathan Teghtmeyer, an associate coordinator for communications at the ATA, wrote, “Educating students from all backgrounds together in the same environment teaches respect and honours diversity. Students learn collectively to be cooperative, compassionate and collaborative contributors to society.”

The proposed Education Act was not only encouraging the inclusion of the Alberta Human Rights Act, but also, as stated in the February 14 press release announcing the bill, the new act would also require boards to develop a student code of conduct that addresses bullying, “Whether or not it occurs within a school building, during the school day or by electronic means.”

With the rise of reported teen suicides precipitated by repeated bullying, the public awareness of the consequences of schoolyard taunting has risen, but methods to mitigate the effects of bullying are still rather elusive. The issue of technology has created another level of bullying, one that cannot be tracked so easily. As one teacher from Lethbridge, who has asked to not be named, noted, “Technology, being such a huge part of our lives, has changed the reaction everyone has to bullying and where we need to create and reinforce that safe and caring environment.”

Under Bill 44, teachers have seen a change in how to broach the subject of bullying due to gender or sexuality. Students must now motivate these moments and teachers need to seize it when it occurs. The same Lethbridge teacher commented that, “If a student brings a question forward, I do have the responsibility to use that as a teachable moment and then to follow up on any questions or concerns with those stakeholders—parents and administrators.”

Class size and the way a school addresses bullying also makes a significant difference. For Jennifer Davis, a mom of two elementary aged children, a small school displayed the best characteristics of a diverse and inclusive environment for her kids. “I chose a smaller school for its francophone aspect and its community,” says Davis. “Teachers are able to give more time and this helps reduce bullying. There is more accountability for the students.”

While the PC government was returned with a majority, the success of the act in the future will depend on the relationship between the new Minister for Education, Jeff Johnson and the critic from the Official Opposition—Wildrose MLA Bruce McAllister.

Originally published in VUE Weekly, May 16th in issue #865.

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