Stock photo by Kylii Kittus on Upsplash
Sexual health education improving — slowly — in Comox Valley schools
Second in a series examining the state of sexual health education in public schools
Comox Valley parents are at the forefront of sexual health education in British Columbia, having recently won unanimous province-wide support for an expanded public schools curriculum that got the attention and a large measure of respect from Education Ministry officials.
Every BC school district that attended the recent Conference of Parent Advisory Council’s annual general meeting last month, voted to support a resolution from Ecole Puntledge Park Elementary parents that calls for an age-appropriate curriculum, including consent and online safety as key concepts, from Kindergarten through Grade 12.
At present, sexual health education in BC ends in Grade 10, and the provincial curriculum does not focus on consent or the risks posed by modern technology. Nor does the province fully fund consent-based training for teachers, another demand in the parents’ resolution.
On the local level, parents’ advocacy through individual, school-based Parent Advisory Councils has shone a light on gaps in sexual health education within School District 71, and their work has led to significant changes.
District student services director makes five recommendations about how to spend 2019/2020 sexual health education funding, which has dropped from previous years
For the first time, sexual health education received its own line item in next year’s annual budget and makes a debut in the district’s new four-year strategic plan. There has also been a significant increase this year in the amount of sexual health education classroom time for K-10 students.
The parents and commending the board and district administration for these improvements, even though some of their other issues haven’t been as well received.
Beyond more classroom time, parents have advocated for nearly two years to expand sexual health education into Grades 11 and 12, to create uniformity and consistency of lessons across the district and to fund a designated district-wide sexual health educator to provide oversight of content and coaching for teachers.
Comox Valley parents have also asked the district to develop new policies regarding sexual harassment and assault that include a protocol for reporting and disclosure of incidents involving students.
Despite widespread support for these initiatives from SD71 Parent Advisory Councils, and a province-wide parental endorsement, the local district administration and board of trustees have been hesitant.
Making sexual health education a priority
School Board Chair Janice Caton says sexual health education is a district priority, which now has its own line item in the annual budget.
“Over the past few years, sexual health education has been identified by both parents and the district as a priority and, as a result, the district has made a strong commitment to supporting sexual health education by providing resources, which are included in the budget as a line item,” she told Decafnation via email.
Trustees approved the district’s 2020 budget June 25. But in its final form, the district proposes to spend about 30 percent less on sexual health education than in previous years when it contracted delivery of the curriculum to an outside expert, Dr. Claire Vanston of Nanaimo.
The district has budgeted district-wide sexual health support for approximately eight hours per week (0.2 FTE) at $19,260, plus another $5,000 for sexual and mental health resources in a separate line item. The budget notes that the educator position is tenuous and reviewable annually.
In contrast, according to a report prepared for SD71 in January 2018 by former superintendent Clyde Woolman, the district had paid Vanston, a private sexual health education professional, approximately $35,800 the previous year to teach students directly.
Of that amount, $25,000 came from district funds, and the remainder from grants which Vanston applied for herself.
The Comox Valley DPAC Sexual Health Committee members say they were underwhelmed by the district’s financial commitment to it in next year’s budget, despite widespread support of parents in the district.
Brooke Finlayson, a member of the committee, acknowledges the new budget line items and says the addition highlights the need for increased and sustained funding of the sexual health program in SD 71.
“This is a nuanced area of education, one that requires an educator with specific knowledge of the subject matter, understanding of the ever-changing trends and the impacts that online use is having on children’s health and safety,” she told Decafnation.
The committee would like to see a full-time district liaison who would oversee sexual health program delivery and promote consistency in sexual health education between all schools.
Other districts, such as Nanaimo, have already taken this approach with a full-time sexual health educator.
She says parents also want sexual health taught to students in grades 11 and 12 at all the secondary schools.
“Parents have raised concerns about the district’s past patchwork approach to sexual health education where students at some schools received more lessons in sexual health education than in other schools,” Finlayson told Decafnation. “It is important that does not continue.”
From the district’s perspective
School District 71 Superintendent Dean Lindquist says sexual health education is not just a priority for public schools, “I’d say it’s a priority for society.”
But, he also says, the word ‘priority’ means different things to different people.
“We have parents who want more sexual health education, and other parents who think the schools are superseding the parental role … We have to pay attention to those who don’t want us to teach sexual health education,” he told Decafnation. “Our response is to try to balance those perspectives.”
The district Parents Advisory Council committee on sexual health education wonders how many parents have actually spoken against sexual health education.
There is no defining data, but the results of the district’s recent strategic planning survey, which was released last Friday, shows no responses urging the district to cutback on sexual health education. By comparison, there are more than 100 responses asking the district for more classroom time on the topic.
Still, the issue isn’t about dollars and cents, according to Lindquist, it’s about the content of teaching.
“I don’t want to get into dollars here and dollars there. At the end of the day it’s not the cost of the program that’s important, it’s the delivery,” he said. “It’s important that teachers understand the content and what we’re doing.”
In reference to the parents request for a full-time district resource person, Lindquist said he didn’t see the benefit.
“What would this person do? We’re trying to build system capacity, not something that disappears with one person,” he said. “There are 1,000 ways to fix any problem. Just because I don’t pick your way doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.”
More potential improvements coming?
At this week’s school board meeting, Director of Student Services Ester Shatz made five recommendations for improving sexual health education in the future, which partly address some of the Comox Valley parents’ concerns.
The decision to implement any of Shatz’s suggestion will be considered by district senior leadership in the fall. When the board of trustees approved the 2019/2020 budget, they allocated money for sexual health education, but the board does not decide who is brought in for professional development or how the curriculum is implemented.
Shatz said she consulted with school principals and vice-principals about how to spend the money trustees put in the 2020 budget for sexual health education.
— Contract Dr. Vanston four hours per month throughout the school year to provide consultation regarding critical issues and resources;
— Use the remainder of the FTE equivalent (dollars) to provide release time to those teachers who are in need of training and to purchase and update resources as necessary;
— That we re-establish our relationship with our community partners, Island Health in particular to provide expert consultation and possible sessions to our students;
— That we design a learning series for grade 11 and 12 students outside of the curriculum regarding issues of consent, digital safety and preparing for life after high school; and
— Invite Dr. Vanston to present at the 2020 teacher Professional Development day.
The recommendations came as a surprise — albeit a pleasant one — to the District Parent Advisory Council (DPAC).
Shannon Aldinger, who chairs the DPAC sexual health committee, and Finlayson said they were pleased with Shatz’s recommendations, especially to extend some sexual health education into Grades 11 and 12, and to crease further learning opportunities for teachers.
But both were also disappointed that Shatz didn’t go further.
“I am very pleased with the recommendations that sexual health education be extended to grades 11 and 12 and that the district continue to draw upon Dr. Claire’s (Vanston) expertise both for curriculum development and teacher training,” Aldinger told Decafnation via email.
She said if the district approves these recommendations, it would represent significant progress and be “highly commendable.”
“That said, I am disappointed that the funding to do so would be drawn from the stated .2 position rather than another source such as learning resources (which was the source of funding for sexual health in previous years), particularly given that there has been no increase in funding for sexual health from previous years,” Aldinger said.
Finlayson echoed those comments.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that we won’t have an actual point person for the .2 FTE … but things move slowly around here and this is more than we’ve ever had,” Finlayson said via email. “This initiative was truly parent-driven and we’ve earned that, at least.”
Superintendent Dean Lindquist said the district frequently makes recommendations for all of its educational programs.
“These recommendations specifically were in response to the Board of Education’s request to ensure we continue to build capacity with our sexual health education curriculum,” Lindquist told Decafnation via email. “They reflect the observations made by Dr. Claire Vanston, the input shared from the Parent Advisory Councils, and the feedback from our educators.”
Board of Trustees Chair Janice Caton said the recommendations were reflective of what the district has heard about about providing continuing sexual health education.
“The board of education absolutely supports the need to provide students a strong education on sexual heath and consent, and we will continue to work with our parents, educators and other districts in BCSTA to advocate for the Ministry of Education to include consent in the BC curriculum,” Caton told Decafnation.
Next: Why do parents want sexual health education to be extended to Grades 11 and 12? And, sexual harassment and other dangers confronting students and worrying parents of teenagers in School District 71.
This article was updated to correct that trustees do not vote to approve recommendations on how program money is spent once the budget is approved. That is a consideration for district administration.
Sexual health is a key component of overall health, well-being, and quality of life. It is a major determining factor in the well-being of individuals, partners, families, and communities. Furthermore, the sexual health of people in Canada has important social and economic implications for the country. Therefore, the development and implementation of comprehensive sexual health education aimed at enhancing sexual health and well-being and preventing outcomes that negatively impact sexual health should be a public policy priority.
GOALS OF SEXUAL HEALTH EDUCATION
The goal of comprehensive sexual health education is for all people to gain the skills and knowledge required to maintain healthy bodies, healthy relationships, a healthy body image and to know what to do in unsafe situations.
Quality sexual health education has a direct impact on preventing negative outcomes, and promoting positive ones.
WHAT IS SEXTING?
Sexting involves creating, sending, receiving or sharing sexual messages, images and/or videos using the Internet and/or electronic devices. Commonly these types of messages are intended only for the recipient; however, the sender has little control over these messages becoming public. It is illegal to produce, possess or distribute naked or sexually explicit pictures and/or videos of young people under 18 years of age.
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