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Repeal of updated sex-ed curriculum is dangerous

Waterloo Region Record by Lyndsey Butcher 31 July 2018

In June, a 19-year-old Kitchener man pled guilty to sexually trafficking a 14-year-old girl from Cambridge. The girl had been groomed and recruited over several months on Instagram, one of several social media sites popular with teens and used by predators to exploit children in our community.

The 2015 updated sexual health education curriculum provided teachers with the content they needed to not only warn students about these dangers online, but also equipped them with the tools they need to avoid it.

As part of our prevention programming, SHORE Centre educators delivered more than 260 sex-ed workshops last year in public schools across Waterloo Region. We pride ourselves on leading interactive workshops where students can get accurate answers to their questions and learn to make well-informed decisions. We know firsthand the positive impact that comprehensive sexual health education can have on young people’s lives.

The provincial government’s sudden decision to repeal the 2015 sex-ed curriculum and replace it with vague outdated content from twenty years ago is not only ill-conceived — it is dangerous.

The 2015 sex-ed curriculum was created through years of consultations with parents, teachers and experts in the field of public health. It is the only evidence-based sexual health education curriculum that has ever been taught in Ontario’s classrooms. In contrast, the 1998 curriculum was written over the course of a year, without substantive consultations or research. It was one small piece of the Mike Harris government’s broad revamping of Ontario’s public schools in the mid-1990s. It contains only 42 pages of vague learning objectives compared to 244 pages of accurate, detailed, science-based content available in the 2015 version.

Comprehensive sexual health education is a human right recognized by the United Nations. Children and youth need to know about their own bodies, learn about consent, and understand how to safely navigate our increasingly online world. More than that, the 2015 curriculum fosters understanding of differences within our communities. What are we telling LGBTQ+ youth across the province by returning to a curriculum that predates the 2005 legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada? This decision sends a clear signal that their identities do not matter, or worse still that they should go back in the closet.

Opponents of the updated curriculum argue that including content on gender identity, sexual orientation and masturbation will confuse and potentially harm children. They assert that sexual health education should happen in the home, rather than the classroom. While I agree that parents have an important role to play in educating their children about their family’s values and expectations, I am not naïve enough to expect every parent to be up-to-date on advances in birth control, sexually transmitted infections, sexuality and technology.

In our current #MeToo moment, our children and youth need to be learning more about consent and healthy relationships, not less. How often have we heard men accused of sexual harassment say that they did not understand what they were doing was wrong? A survey released by the Canadian Women’s Foundation in May found that only 28 per cent of Canadians felt they truly understood consent. The 2015 version of the curriculum has only been in our classrooms for three years. Imagine the impact teaching an entire generation about consent and healthy relationships could have on Ontario. This curriculum has the potential to dramatically decrease gender-based violence in our society. We know that by the time someone acts inappropriately or commits an act of sexual assault, it is too late. We need to be teaching all children what enthusiastic consent looks like, and that it is OK to set boundaries and say no. This must happen universally, with every child in our public schools in order to have the far-reaching impact our society so desperately needs.

Since the provincial government’s repeal announcement a few weeks ago, there have been nearly daily contradictory statements from government officials, including from the premier himself. It’s clear that there is no plan for what is to be taught come September. I urge the provincial government to put the safety of students ahead of divisive politics and reinstate the 2015 sex-ed curriculum.

Lyndsey Butcher is the executive director of Waterloo Region’s Sexual Health Options, Resources & Education Centre, known as the SHORE Centre.