The Hanover School Division is defending itself against critics, saying it's on solid ground with its policies and procedures that prevent middle school teachers from talking about same-sex relationships in the classroom.
"Quite frankly, it's just not part of the curriculum," said Ron Falk, board chair of the Hanover School Division.
Earlier this month the Hanover School Division was approached by Michelle McHale, a mother from the Steinbach area who was concerned about her child being bullied for having two moms. She asked the division to review its guidelines and implement a new policy that would include LGBTQ individuals and families in classroom resources and conversations.
HSD's current policy classifies all questions around LGBTQ issues as "sensitive content."
"It slots it under the category sensitive materials because, not only our division, many divisions and obviously the department of education feels ... that for middle schools children that it's maybe best talked about at home instead of in front of a whole group of other students," said Falk.
Under HSD 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, something that troubles McHale.
"A policy that requires a teacher to out a student to their parents is dangerous, irresponsible," said McHale.
"Some parents have the ability to adequately support their child, but some don't, and we've had kids who have killed themselves for less," said McHale, speaking generally.
Pride Winnipeg publicly backed McHale's request to the HSD board of trustees and calls its response to the concern a "cop-out."
"For a division to not take this seriously, I would question everyone around that table — every single trustee — how much they truly are committing to their mandate to provide a safe and inclusive school for kids," said Jonathan Niemczak of Pride Winnipeg.
A positive shift to the policy could be as simple as the use of inclusive language, says Niemczak.
"It may sound super petty and small but for our community it means a lot. When you go through the entire school system and you're only ever exposed to the binary way of thinking, you're constantly going to think that if you're not part of that binary world there's something wrong with you, there's something wrong with your family," said Niemczak.
Diversity in other divisions
The Winnipeg School Division actively includes LGBTQ people in its classroom activities and materials. In addition to following the provincial curriculum, it developed its own classroom-based family life education resources.
"It's about diversity in families," said Nori Korsunsky, health education consultant for the Winnipeg School Division.
In WSD classrooms, students in Grades 4 to 10 receive lessons in family structures and relationships. Diversity within families is reflected in books, DVDs, and even math questions, says Korsunsky.
"We're talking about all types of families. Two moms, two dads, grandparents, foster parents, aunts, uncles, because the reality is that we live in a diverse society and our students live in a diverse community," said Korsunsky.
Diversity training is mandatory in the Winnipeg School Division for all staff. While Korsunsky recognizes the importance of parents as educators, she says schools have an important role, and that research shows schools with things such as gay-straight alliances and diversity groups make for safer and more inclusive schools.
"If they're not supported around their sexual orientation at home at least in school we want them to have one caring adult. That helps build resiliency in kids, which is what we want for all kids."
Hanover School Division adapted a Respect for Human Diversity Policy in 2014. Pride Winnipeg applauds the policy but says it needs to be followed up by action. It plans to lobby the new Manitoba government to make diversity education mandatory in all classrooms in the province.