Edmonton school board drops abstinence-based sex ed after complaint

The Edmonton Public School Board has said it will tell teachers not to use an anti-abortion centre to teach part of its sexual education curriculum, after a McNally high school student filed a human rights complaint over what she was taught.

Mom, daughter file complaint over sex ed course

8 years ago
Duration 6:10
Emily and Kathy Dawson say Edmonton curriculum was 'values-based'

The Edmonton Public School Board has said it will tell teachers not to use an anti-abortion centre to teach part of its sexual education curriculum, after a high school student filed a human rights complaint over what she was taught.

Eighteen-year-old Emily Dawson and her mother Kathy have filed a human rights complaint over a workshop that the Edmonton Pregnancy Care Centre put on at McNally High School last year, which she says misled students about contraception, sexually transmitted infections and other issues in an effort to push abstinence.

"That was highly disappointing," Dawson told CBC News.

Phone calls, emails and social media comments in response to media reports about the Dawsons' complaint prompted board officials to make the change. 

“We're getting a significant (amount) of push back on the group, in terms of the program that they’re offering in our schools," said Lorne Parker, acting superintendent with Edmonton Public Schools. 

The Alberta Human Rights Commission has accepted the Dawsons' complaint. Kathy Dawson confirmed with CBC News on Friday that she will continue to pursue it, in spite of the school board's decision. 

Norah Kennedy, executive director of the Edmonton Pregnancy Care Centre, was surprised by the board's decision to drop her group. (CBC)

She believes the same thing may be happening in schools across Alberta and she wants legislators to become involved. 

In a Facebook post made Friday, the EPSB wrote that it had a registered nurse observe one of the presentations unannounced and found the information “met our standards and expectations on every level” but that it would still look for new presenters for the next year.

“Having said that, we've heard a lot of concerns expressed from the public over the last several days about guest speakers invited to present on the topic of sexual health education,” the board wrote.

“We are asking our schools in the fall to use different presenters so that we can continue this conversation, and focus on meeting the needs of students and parents.”

The board also said it would seek more feedback from parents about sexual education. 

The Edmonton Pregnancy Care Centre told CBC News it was “disappointed” by the decision.  Executive director Norah Kennedy said the news comes as a shock.

“I think that it's fear-based," Kennedy said. "I think that an individual who decides she's going to just go after something can cause fear to happen.”

Hear Emily Dawson's full interview with CBC's Radio Active

On mobile? Listen here

The Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre, with is part of the same network as the Edmonton organization, says the group’s workshops are based on scientific principles and statistics from Statistics Canada and Alberta Health Services.

Both organizations are affiliated with Care-Net, a U.S.-based Christian group that opposes abortion.

“While we have a faith background, the religious part does not come up in the public school or education,” said Jutta Wittmeier, director of the Calgary centre.

“That’s just not part of the program, it’s science- and research-based.”

She says teachers are in the room during the presentation, and that she “can’t imagine” they wouldn’t step in if the students were given misleading information. Wittmeier said that her group is specifically invited to talk about abstinence, and that it only makes up a small part of the larger Alberta sex ed curriculum.

“We, in reality, recognize ... that while abstinence is a good choice, it is not the only choice. We talk about STIs, we talk about, to some degree, birth control, obviously.

"We want students to be as safe as possible.”

The sex-ed curriculum for Alberta's Career and Life Management class, which is mandatory for all students in public high schools, includes directions for educators to "describe sexually healthy actions and choices for one’s body, including abstinence" as well as to "analyze strategies for choosing responsible and respectful sexual expression."

Schools rely on outside groups for sex ed: researcher

Alex McKay, research co-ordinator at the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada, said he was surprised a Canadian public school would use a sexual health curriculum affiliated with a U.S.-based group.

Generally, he said, Canada has been far ahead of the U.S. when it comes to teaching about sexual health free of ideology or religion.

McKay wasn’t, however, surprised to see a school bring in an outside group to teach sex ed, a subject he said school teachers across Canada are ill-prepared to teach.

“I think there’s no question that many of the teachers who are given the task of teaching sexual health education have had no formal training to do so,” McKay said.

There’s also, he said, a lot to know – from questions about STIs to birth control. Outside groups, like local Planned Parenthood chapters, public health nurses and in this case the Edmonton Pregnancy Care Centre, are relied on to bring all of that knowledge.

“There’s a large body of knowledge that one needs to have to teach sexual education effectively,” McKay said.

Hear Jutta Wittmeier describe the workshop on Edmonton AM

On mobile? Listen here

With files from the CBC's Trisha Estabrooks


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