Minister Eggen's Letter to Westwind School Division

Photo Credit: Calgary Herald

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Mar 23, 2016

Mr. Ron Fromm
Board Chairman
Westwind School Division #74
Box 10
445 Main Street
Cardston, AB, T0K 0K0

Dear Mr. Fromm:

I want to thank you for speaking with me on February 25, 2016, about our work to support students by ensuring all Alberta schools are welcoming, caring, respectful, and safe. It became so clear to me that you and your fellow trustees with Westwind School Division are dedicated to supporting students.

I also appreciate you offering me the opportunity to communicate directly with Westwind families to provide some reassurance of the direction our government has taken when it comes to developing policies to support students.

First, let me state that our government values and respects the religious freedoms enjoyed by Albertans. We also fully support the rights of parents and the critical role they play in their children’s education.

The Guidelines for Best Practices: Creating Learning Environments that Respect Diverse Sexual Orientations, Gender Identities and Gender Expressions, developed and released by Alberta Education, came in response to requests from school boards seeking some guidance in an area that was unfamiliar to many of them. The guidelines are not legally binding and intend only to provide examples of best practices in supporting students with diverse gender identities and gender expressions.

While the guidelines are not legally binding, school authorities, such as yours, are required to comply with applicable legislation, including the Alberta Human Rights Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as the School Act, which was recently amended as a result of the Act to Amend the Alberta Bill of Rights to Protect Our Children, formerly Bill 10. The guidelines are intended to support your boards developing policies that comply with this legislation.

Students themselves have told us the legislative changes made in these areas to support LGBTQ students have the potential to save lives. The stakes are very high.

Still, I can appreciate the concerns raised by many of your parents that have emerged out of the work we have undertaken.

By and large, we know that parents will support their children regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. In some cases, however, students may prefer to turn to their teachers to discuss these matters first. The guidelines suggest that those teachers seek the permission of the student before consulting with their parents.

It is important to consider that some LGBTQ students may not have disclosed their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression beyond the school community for a variety of reasons, including safety. For this reason, school authorities may make decisions on a case-by-case basis about what is in the best interest of the student.

Student safety will remain a top priority and, ultimately, we will rely heavily on our teachers and principals to accommodate all students. The Alberta Teachers’ Association has endorsed the guidelines as a valuable tool for frontline teachers. Again, it’s a tool, not a legal document.

The guidelines also address the matter of washrooms, which I know has been an important topic of discussion in your community and others. School authorities are advised to have multiple strategies in place for accommodating washroom requests from students. Safety and privacy for all students will always be top priorities.

As you know, I have asked all school authorities to submit a policy to Alberta Education for review by March 31; however, I should note that our conversations will continue on this important file in the weeks and months ahead.

Mr. Fromm, I am a student of history and have read a great deal on past struggles to attain human rights. This is a moment in time when we can all stand together to support our students and staff in our schools.

I ask that both you and the families of Westwind School Division continue to discuss these important matters in a positive manner in the weeks ahead. As school authorities such as yours develop policy, I believe each will reflect the community you represent and afford students all the support they need.

Sincerely,

David Eggen
Minister