The Hanover School Division in southern Manitoba is facing a human rights complaint over a policy that prohibits its teachers from talking about sexual orientation or gender identity in some classrooms.
The Public Interest Law Centre announced on Monday that it has submitted a complaint to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission on behalf of Michelle McHale and Karen Phillips, a common-law couple from the Steinbach, Man., area.
The couple alleges that one of their children was bullied at school for having two moms.
When McHale complained to the school principal, she was told a division policy forbids any discussion of same-sex relationships in elementary and middle school classes.
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In their complaint, McHale and Phillips allege the school division has failed to create a safe and inclusive environment for students.
"When you exclude any discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity from the classroom, what we're saying is that sends a message to students that there's something wrong with either them or their families," Allison Fenske, an attorney with the Winnipeg-based law centre, said on Monday.
"That kind of exclusion and stigmatization really creates unsafe spaces in the school, and that just can't stand."
Fenske said once the couple's complaint is formally registered with the commission, the school division will be given an opportunity to respond.
The Hanover School Division has defended its policy, which classifies all questions around LGBT issues as "sensitive content."
In a news release in April, the division said it follows the provincial curriculum and requires teachers to give age-appropriate answers.
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"Hanover School Division has identified sexual orientation alongside abortion and masturbation as topics that need to follow this 'sensitive topics' guideline," Fenske said.
"Our clients really believe that there's something inherently wrong with setting up a vital part of someone's identity against other actions and choices that really just aren't comparable."
Under the policy, teachers are required to respond to students' questions around sensitive content one-on-one, outside of class time.
The policy also states that teachers are required to inform a parent or guardian when a student comes forward with questions around sexual orientation.
Fenske said the couple is calling on the school division to allow teachers to discuss sexual orientation and gender identity issues freely with students in all classrooms whenever questions arise.
"They need to be able to have classroom materials and learning exercises that reflect the diversity of Manitoba families, and that includes LGBTTQ people in their communities," she added.
The complaint follows several requests by McHale that the school division board of trustees review its guidelines and implement a more inclusive policy.
"Our clients are always open to, and have been throughout this process, trying to resolve matters informally with the school administration, and that didn't work with the school trustees in public meetings," Fenske said.
"When those requests went unanswered and weren't being discussed in a meaningful way, this human rights complaint is just one more tool in the toolbox, so to speak."
Province says it's working with school division
Speaking to reporters at the Manitoba Legislature, McHale said she hopes the commission can order "mandatory anti-discrimination and human rights training for the trustees in all of Hanover School Division, and for them to make some changes so that the kids can have a safer, more inclusive place to go."
McHale received a standing ovation by MLAs on Monday for her efforts to organize Steinbach's pride parade — an event that several prominent local politicians, including Conservative MP Ted Falk, say they will not attend.
NDP Leader Flor Marcelino urged the provincial government to intervene and order Hanover trustees to take sensitivity training, but Education Minister Ian Wishart said the province is doing what it can on the issue.
"We are working very constructively with the local school division. We do respect their local autonomy. It's something that appears to be lacking across the floor," Wishart said during question period.
"We are working with them to try to find a resolution to the situation, but we do also respect the individual's right to go to the human rights commission."
Wishart said he hopes the complaint can be resolved without the need for a full human rights commission hearing.
Marcelino argued that the government must be responsible for the supervision of all public school officials, and voluntary measures should not be enough.
Read the complaint below: