Teachers' role not to instigate 'very personal' talk about GSAs, union says

Student may be deterred from seeking support of a school gay-straight alliance by even a small risk of being outed to their parents, Alberta's teachers union says.

'The decision to have that conversation needs to ride with the student,' Greg Jeffery says

The Alberta Teachers' Association says students shouldn't be deterred from seeking support at a school gay-straight alliance. Pictured are student at Forest Lawn High School, which, in 2014, held a social media campaign to promote the need for GSAs in all schools. (CBC)

Student may be deterred from seeking support of a school gay-straight alliance (GSA) by even a small risk of being outed to their parents, Alberta's teachers union says.

The provincial NDP government has put forward Bill 24, which would prevent teachers and principals of publicly funded Alberta schools from telling parents their children joined such a school group.

Jason Kenney, leader of the opposition United Conservative Party, is staunchly against the bill, but says his MLAs are allowed to vote freely on it.

MLAs are expected to debate the bill, now in second reading, for the first time on Tuesday.

ATA president Greg Jeffery. (Alberta Teachers' Association)

The Alberta Teachers' Association supports the bill, and association president Greg Jeffery says teachers should only help students prepare for what can be "a very personal" discussion with their parents about their sexuality or gender identity — not instigate it themselves.

Jeffery spoke with Calgary Eyeopener host David Gray on Thursday morning:

Q: Why are you supporting this bill?

A: First of all, we believe that GSAs are important because they create safe spaces in schools, making schools more welcoming, especially for sexual and gender minority students.

Q: That makes sense. We've heard that before. But why are you supporting this bill specifically?

A: If there's a risk of disclosure and doesn't matter how small it is, and by any teacher, not just the sponsoring teacher by a GSA, there's a possibility that that might be enough to prevent a student from participating in a GSA.

Then they would lose out on the support that would be gained from their participation.

So it still goes back to that safe space. We need it to feel completely safe for students.

Q: Can I take it from that that you don't agree with Jason Kenney's statement when he says that teachers, not politicians, should decide when it makes sense to engage parents?

A: We also have an article in our code of professional conduct that talks about teachers may not divulge information about a pupil — and I'm sort of paraphrasing here — except as required by law or when it's in the best interest of the pupil. So we're taking the students' needs as being the primary focus here.

Certainly we would be talking with students and helping them prepare for a difficult, perhaps, conversation. But the decision to have that conversation needs to ride with the student. It's a very personal thing.

Q: Does this bill actually make it easier, then, for teachers? Because it takes that decision-making process out of your hands and says that the provincial government's decided already for you, that you would not be informing parents.

A: It does make it easier for teachers because there can be outside pressures put on teachers as well from an employer or various outside groups but this will say quite clearly that student privacy, safety and their security comes first and that that teacher is not going to divulge that information.

The proposed law would take effect April 1 next year if approved by the legislature. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Q: What will this mean for Catholic school teachers? Is there a risk that it puts them at odds with their community?

A: I don't believe so because there is no requirement that a teacher be the sponsor or be involved with a GSA. And if it goes against their personal beliefs, then they certainly would not be participating.

It's not something that would be assigned. It would be strictly a voluntary sponsorship.

Q: Is the bill necessary? There's suggestion that in some ways, this is mischief amongst the New Democrats trying to call out the United Conservative Party.

Now I know that's the world of politics and your concern is the world of the classroom. But to put it in another way, do teachers already have enough power to make the decision on their own without provincial legislation?

A: I suppose but it's clarity, I think. It just makes it very clear that a teacher will not be doing this and perhaps takes away the opportunity for someone else to be pressuring that teacher to divulge this information.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener