Privacy laws will protect LGBTQ students, UCP says as amended Education Act introduced

The Alberta government says privacy legislation will prevent LGBTQ students in gay-straight alliances from being outed, despite proposed changes in education legislation that would end protections enacted by the previous NDP government.

Education Act doesn't hold principals to any timelines for granting a GSA request

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Alberta's United Conservative government says privacy legislation will prevent LGBTQ students in gay-straight alliances from being outed, despite proposed changes in education legislation that would end protections enacted by the previous NDP government.

Bill 8, introduced Wednesday in the legislature, also removes a provision compelling principals to "immediately" approve a GSA after students ask for one. 

When asked by reporters how the bill prevents unsympathetic school officials from simply dragging their feet, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said the process is clearly laid out, even though there is no timeline for school officials to meet. 

"We will work with those situations as they arise," she said. "I do not anticipate these to arise."

The NDP Official Opposition says Bill 8 would remove protections and scare off kids who want to join GSAs or discourage students from asking for one.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley accused LaGrange of bowing to socially conservative interests in her party.

"You know as many as half of boards will abandon GSAs and you're OK with it, because your values are more important than the safety of those kids," Notley said during question period. "Why not just admit it."

LaGrange said she disagreed with Notley's characterization, saying Alberta privacy legislation would protect students.

"What I heard from students that are in these organizations is that they want balance," LaGrange told the house. 

When asked at the news conference what she meant by balance, LaGrange said students told her they want to be able to go on field trips, which require parental permission.

"Because right now, parents are not allowed to be notified," she said. 

Privacy legislation protections

Bill 8 amends the Education Act that was passed but never proclaimed by past Progressive Conservative governments.

The new act does not have the Bill 24 protections enacted by the NDP in the fall of 2017, which made it illegal for teachers to tell a parent if a child has joined a GSA.

The NDP said the change was made to protect students from being outed to their parents before they were comfortable discussing their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. 

Bill 8 does not include that provision. Instead, the government said the relevant privacy legislation — the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act for publicly-funded schools and the Personal Information Protection Act for private schools — would protect students.

Edmonton-Glenora MLA Sarah Hoffman, the NDP's education critic, said principals and teachers told the NDP when they were in government that privacy legislation wasn't strong enough.

"They told us that they wanted clear direction about whether or not they should be outing kids, " she said. " And that's why we brought forward a bill to say you can't out kids."

Hoffman said the NDP included the provision for principals to immediately approve a GSA after students told them principals were delaying their decisions. 

No timeline to grant GSA

Under the bill, disclosure would only be allowed if: the school had "credible" information affecting the safety of GSA members; it was needed for law enforcement reasons; or a student was at risk of self-harm.

Students would be still be entitled under the bill to create "inclusion groups," which would include GSAs and queer-straight alliances.

The legislation also removes the required language that must appear in "safe and caring" school policies that were prescribed by the previous government.

Bill 8 would remove the caps on the number of charter schools and leave decisions solely up to the minister without a demonstration of "significant" community support.

The legislation would add several new considerations for the minister to use when approving a new charter school.

The applicant would be required to show "collaboration or engagement" with a post-secondary institution or school division, focus on a type of learning or style of instruction not offered by the resident school division and demonstrate the school has "the potential to provide  improvements to the education system as a whole."

The UCP government intends to keep changes made by the NDP to how superintendents are compensated, leaving approval of contracts to the minister.

If passed, the Education Act would come into force on Sept. 1.