Schools can't out GSA members to their parents under proposed Alberta law

The Alberta government introduced legislation Thursday to make it illegal for a publicly-funded school to tell parents their child has joined a gay-straight alliance without the child’s consent.

Law would take effect Apr. 1 next year if approved by legislature

Alberta Education Minster David Eggen announced proposed amendments to the School Act which would make it illegal for a school to tell parents their child joined a GSA without that child's consent. (CBC)

The Alberta government introduced legislation Thursday to make it illegal for a publicly-funded school to tell parents their child has joined a gay-straight alliance without the child's consent.

The bill amends the section of the Alberta School Act that says parents must be notified when sexuality or religion is taught in the classroom.

If passed, wording will be added to the legislation stating GSAs are exempt from this provision.

"We wanted to make it crystal clear that kids will not be outed," Education Minister David Eggen said in an interview Thursday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"It will be against the law to do so if we pass this bill, and that schools are compelled to allow GSAs to be formed if their students want to do that."

Gay-straight alliances are after-school clubs where LGBTQ and straight students can talk, eat pizza and hang out together.

They are seen as a way for students who are struggling with their sexuality to get peer support, especially for those who are not ready or don't feel safe talking to their parents. 

Ace Peace, a transgender Grade 12 student from Calgary, said he was thrilled to discover his school had a GSA with a large number of members when he returned to school the fall after coming out as male to his mother at 15. 

"I knew that I didn't have to hide. I knew that I was going to be OK. I knew that I would be accepted and, even more awesome, that my differences and diversity might even be celebrated," he said. 

"I knew that I had allies, friends, classmates and teachers who would have my back."

'Partisan political wedge issue'

Under the bill, policies protecting all students will be have to be posted on school web sites by June 30, 2018. The bill also lays out what has to be included in each policy.

The bill may set up a battle between the NDP government and parental rights activists who say they have the right to know what their children are doing in school.

Earlier this year, United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney said that parents have a right to know when their child joins a GSA, unless the parents are known to be abusive.

Eggen has said Kenney's comments forced the province to introduce the changes.

In a written statement, Kenney said the UCP caucus would not comment on Eggen's bill until they have a chance to discuss it. 

"It is unfortunate that the NDP is using this sensitive matter as a partisan political wedge issue," Kenney said in the statement. "Our approach will always be determined by what is in the best interests of children.

"We trust highly-trained educators to use their professional judgement to make decisions in the best interests of children, particularly given that this policy applies to children as young as five years of age."

GSAs approved by principal

A section of the school act would be amended to clarify the responsibilities of school principals.

Principals would have to approve GSAs immediately after a student requests one and work to set it up in a "timely fashion."

Students will get to choose the name for their groups. The principal will have the authority to make the final call on approving a GSA, not a school trustee or anyone else.

Ace Peace, a 17-year-old student from Calgary, talks to reporters at the legislature about his experience of coming out as a male to his mother and classmates as Education Minister David Eggen (left) and University of Alberta professor Kris Wells look on.

The bill also gives the minister of education authority to investigate contraventions of the law.

The bill does not specify penalties for school officials who break the law.

Complaints about principals and teachers who out LGBTQ students to their parents would be dealt with through the professional disciplinary processes involving the Alberta Teachers Association.

A child whose personal information is breached could also have a complaint investigated through Alberta's privacy commissioner.

Schools that break the law could have their accreditation or government funding pulled, Eggen said. 

If the bill is passed, the amendments would come into effect Apr. 1, 2018.

Why so afraid, student asks

Ace Peace said he doesn't understand why GSAs have become such an issue for some adults. 

He said for some LGBTQ students these clubs are the only safe space they have to talk because they are afraid of what their parents would do or say. 

"I don't want to imagine what it would mean for them if they would be outed for attending," Peace said, adding he is "scared to even think about" it.

"As much as I try to, I don't understand what people are so afraid of or what they think happens in a GSA." 

A study from the University of Alberta released earlier this month highlights how vulnerable transgender youth are. 

The study found nearly 65 per cent of transgender Albertans between the ages of 19 and 25 have considered suicide at some point. 

The study also found that fear of parents finding out has kept more than 90 per cent of transgender youth between 14 and 18 from seeking help from a mental health professional.

Kris Wells, the study's lead Alberta researcher and director of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta, said if passed, Eggen's bill will be the most comprehensive GSA legislation in the country.

"GSAs literally can save young people's lives," he said. "They invite parents and famlies into a conversation. They don't exclude them from a conversation." 

As for Kenney calling the bill a "political wedge issue," Wells said it shows he isn't ready to lead Alberta. 

"A leader stands up and protects the most vulnerable," he said. "A leader stands up and is not afraid of LGBTQ issues, is not afraid of the changing face of this province, and I think Jason Kenney continues to be out of step with the majority of Albertans."