Leaked report suggests one in five Alberta school boards may lack completed LGBTQ policies

A provincial report leaked to CBC News suggests up to 22 per cent of Alberta school boards may lack completed LGBTQ policies, while at least 12 schools resist GSAs.

Education department declines to reveal number of approved policies, while at least 12 schools resist GSAs

Politicians recently raised the rainbow flag with LGBTQ students but advocates say stronger provincial legislation is needed to protect them. (Peter Evans/CBC)

A provincial internal report leaked to CBC News suggests up to 22 per cent of Alberta school boards may not have complete LGBTQ policies in place.

The data is contained in a December 2016 report prepared by Alberta Health Services titled A Scan of Alberta Healthy School Policies.

According to the report, only 58 of Alberta's 74 publicly funded school authorities had inclusive policies at the time of publication.

"This report from Alberta Health Services clearly shows that some school districts are failing in their duties to provide discrimination-free educational environments," said Kris Wells, director of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta. 'Kids can't learn if they don't feel safe at school."
Kris Wells says the AHS report is further evidence that some Alberta school districts are failing to protect LGBTQ students. (CBC)

Wells said the figures are more evidence of a "deeply concerning trend; that there are still many gaps in school district policies; that despite what the ministry has said, not all school authorities have submitted policies or have them in place."

Refuses to reveal number

In 2015, Education Minister David Eggen ordered all Alberta school boards to submit draft LGBTQ policies by March of the following year. His department says all boards have complied.

The ministry admitted, however, that not all those policies are completed. CBC asked for the most recent updated numbers but the province declined to provide them.

 "I can't tell you how many are 'approved' as some new considerations have come with regards to notification," wrote Jeremy Nolais, Eggen's chief of staff, in a statement this week. "We had discussions, some as recently as (Monday) about some changes we would like to see."

Nolais said there is no deadline for completion.

But a response from lawyers representing the Independent Baptist Christian Education Society (IBCES) raises more uncertainty about the status of the policies.
Lawyer John Carpay said many schools stated in their policies that the school won't allow GSAs or activities "contrary to the school's mission, vision, beliefs and purpose" (CBC)

Last summer, Brian Coldwell, the pastor who oversees two Christian private schools in the Edmonton-area, refused to comply with Eggen's order, or legislation to allow students to form gay-straight alliances, or GSAs.

Lawyer John Carpay is with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms which represents more than a dozen schools fighting LGBTQ policies. 

"Many schools (including IBCES) have stated in their March 2016 policies that the school will not allow clubs or activities that are contrary to the school's mission, vision, beliefs and purpose," he said in an email Friday.

Carpay said he's aware of at least a dozen non-Catholic schools refusing to allow such clubs.

Carpay also said that to the best of his knowledge, "the Minister has not responded to individual schools with an indication as to whether or not, in his view, they comply with relevant legislation."

He added that the schools submitted "anti-bullying" policies and he's not aware of any of them submitting "LGBTQ policy, or of a requirement on the part of the schools to do so."

When asked if the department was working with Coldwell's schools, press secretary Lindsay Harvey responded: "Alberta Education is continuing to work with a number of boards across the province to ensure their policies are appropriate."

She noted in the spring Eggen issued a ministerial order demanding Coldwell's schools comply with the law. 
Pastor Brian Coldwell, chair of the Independent Baptist Christian Education Society, runs two of a dozen or more schools fighting GSAs. (CBC)

The leaked report shows that In February and July 2016, AHS analysts scanned the websites of all 74 publicly funded Catholic, public, francophone and charter school authorities. They analyzed publicly available "healthy school policies" such as nutrition and anti-bullying as well as LGBTQ policy.

Joel French, the executive director with Public Interest Alberta, said he was shocked not all schools are complying with rules to protect sexual and gender minority students.

"I think we need the minister to clear the air and release his own analysis," said French.

But the department says the policies are still being reviewed.

"This work takes time and we want to get it right," wrote Harvey. "We're actively working with school boards to ensure policies meet the spirt and intent of the School Act."

All policies posted?

The department says school district LGBTQ policies can be found on the boards' websites. "Our understanding is all have been posted online," wrote Nolais.

But a quick search by CBC revealed that either the websties of several boards didn't have policies or that they are difficult to find.

Wells has repeatedly called on Eggen to consolidate LGBTQ policies on one easily accessible website that parents and students can access.

The AHS report noted that all 12 school jurisdictions in Edmonton had LGTBQ policies compared to only five of 13 charter school authorities surveyed province-wide.

The analysis also notes differences between public school district policies and some Catholic boards which used "vague language." But the authors suggested that might provide "more flexibility" to accommodate sexual and gender minority students, French disagreed.

"When it's vague and even if the values are right, I think that there is a danger that the proper supports won't actually be provided," he said.

Foundation for policy toolkit: AHS

In a written statement, Alberta Health Services said the report was "an internal starting point" to create a toolkit  to collaborate with school boards to improve health-related policies.

Spokesperson Kerry Williamson said the toolkit will be available online in the fall.

Wells said what's ultimately needed is a change in provincial legislation "to mandate one policy for all school districts so it's clear no matter what school you attend, you're going to have the same protections and supports." He pointed to recent incidents at Edmonton schools as proof.

"Right now we're just seeing a patchwork of policies and procedures that are leaving LGBTQ students, in some cases, virtually alone and isolated where they're the only ones who are having to defend their basic human rights," he said.