Sexual health educators remain barred from Saskatchewan classrooms as concerns rise for students

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Reagan Conway, executive director of the Saskatoon Sexual Assault & Information Centre, in Saskatoon, Sask., on April 24.Heywood Yu/The Globe and Mail

With the school year nearing a close, Saskatoon student Bu Wells-MacInnis can point to just one sex-ed lesson her Grade 8 class received: a Jeopardy! game on healthy relationships, led by a school counsellor.

Nothing more on consent, dating violence, gender discrimination, sexually transmitted infections, the harms of pornography and intimate image sharing – issues on the minds of many Grade 8s bracing for high school.

“I am concerned because youth need to be educated in this,” said Bu, 13.

She worries that young people who don’t get strong, relevant guidance on these matters at school or at home can be vulnerable in relationships as they get older: “People could carry unhealthy patterns for the rest of their life.”

Across schools in Saskatchewan, sexual health education has been muted this year, in many ways by design.

Late last August, the province’s ministry of education ordered all schools to pause their involvement with any external organizations connected to sexual health education. The directive was part of the government’s focus on “parental inclusion” in children’s schooling, a conservative mandate that also includes a controversial pronoun policy.

As the government disallowed specialized non-profit organizations such as Saskatoon Sexual Health and Planned Parenthood Regina from delivering their in-demand sex ed presentations at schools, it pledged to undertake a “review of educational resources to ensure alignment with curriculum outcomes.”

Eight months later, the organizations remain barred from schools. The directive also shut out educators at sexual assault centres, who delivered sexual abuse prevention programs in classrooms. Outside organizations focused on LGBTQ inclusion and safety have also been put on hiatus.

Bu’s mother Megan Wells is dismayed by the province’s move.

“Informed youth are protected youth,” Ms. Wells said. “Having an emphasis on parents consenting on behalf of youth, rather than equipping our youth to learn about decision-making without coercion, is the wrong direction to take in this conversation.”

Educators say it is a troubling course for students in a province with some of the country’s most abysmal sexual health outcomes.

Saskatchewan counts Canada’s second highest rate of teen pregnancies, some of the steepest tallies provincially of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis, and new HIV diagnoses quadrupling the national rate. The province also has significantly higher rates of sexual violence than the national average. It is in this environment that many adolescents and teenagers are missing critical guidance, experts say.

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Ms. Conway worries vulnerable children who need this help most aren’t being shepherded to libraries after hours.Heywood Yu/The Globe and Mail

“It’s a shame that we’ve lost a whole year,” said Reagan Conway, executive director of the Saskatoon Sexual Assault & Information Centre.

The centre’s sexual abuse prevention programming was in high demand from teachers before the government’s suspension. Designed for Grade 4 students – and running for 17 years – “I’m the Boss of Me” discussed disclosing abuse to a trusted adult. Nearly 4,200 Grade 4 students took the program between 2022 and 2023, with another 2,000 Grade 8 students doing an adapted version focused on healthy relationships and consent.

Since being blocked from classrooms, staff now present at public libraries after school. But it’s been a thin trickle of students; Ms. Conway worries vulnerable children who need this help most aren’t being shepherded to libraries after hours.

“When we went into classrooms, we did see disclosures and young people or parents reaching out for support afterward,” she said. “That is going to be missed when we’re not in the schools.”

Ms. Conway said Saskatchewan’s ministry of education has not contacted her organization about how or when their materials would be reviewed.

The ministry would not answer The Globe and Mail’s questions about which suspended resources it had reviewed specifically in the past eight months, or when these educators would be allowed back in schools. An e-mailed statement from the ministry stated it was “reviewing the policies and procedures for third-party organizations who present on sexual health education in classrooms,” and that “the temporary pause is still in effect.”

Before the suspension, staffers at Battlefords & Area Sexual Assault Centre delivered abuse-prevention seminars to some 3,500 students annually. For young kids, they ran Protect Yourself Rules, which featured colouring books and information about bodily autonomy and “unsafe touch.” Staff would send parent permission slips beforehand.

“Every parent had to sign this for us to be in the classroom – and we’ve never had a parent not,” executive director Amber Stewart said.

Before they were barred from teaching at schools, her staff witnessed dramatic spikes in Grade 5 and 6 students viewing online pornography, as well as violent sexual behaviour among 12- to 14-year-old boys. The centre’s educators would speak to classes about these issues – interventions not permitted now.

“We’re not able to talk to them about where this behaviour is coming from and why it’s not okay,” Ms. Stewart said. “Teachers are trying to deal with these issues as they come up in the classroom but that would be like asking me to go in and teach Grade 5 math – that’s not my expertise.”

The government has pointed to staff with the Saskatchewan Health Authority delivering sex ed this year. But experts say this still leaves serious gaps, citing nursing shortages and a diminished presence of public-health nurses in schools after funding cuts.

“Public health nurses, they’re pretty busy with the crises we have in our province, whether that’s substance use and overdose or rising rates of STIs and congenital syphilis. Even in previous years of nurses doing this work, we’d still get tons of requests,” said Delilah Kamuhanda, education and outreach co-ordinator at Saskatoon Sexual Health, another organization cut off from schools.

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Delilah Kamuhanda, education and outreach co-ordinator at Saskatoon Sexual Health, in the library of the clinic in Saskatoon, on Oct. 20, 2023.Liam Richards/The Globe and Mail

She and other third-party educators are hearing from teachers worried that any classroom discussion of sexual health or gender diversity will draw blowback and parent complaints, risking their job security.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty. We don’t know what is going to come next,” said Scout Gray, the ARC Foundation’s director of national programs for SOGI 1 2 3, a set of resources for educators to help create safe and inclusive schools for students of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Saskatchewan’s ministry of education singled out SOGI 1 2 3 in its August directive, halting it too.

Confusion has mounted about what exactly is or isn’t allowed in schools, Mx. Gray said. They’ve heard from teachers who feel unsure addressing any topic related to gender identity or sexual orientation in class, be it Pride or different family structures.

Saskatchewan teachers who’ve stepped up to deliver sexual health education themselves must first send notes home to parents, who can then opt their kids out of the lessons, which are part of the health curriculum.

Today, when Saskatoon elementary school teacher Zane Arnott gets a question from his students related to sexual health, he pauses and explains, “This is not sexual health class.”

The educator needs parental consent before addressing such questions. He’s watched teachable moments disappear.

“If you’re not able to respond in the moment with a meaningful answer when students are engaged, it’s not likely they’ll have the same questions, concerns or thoughts a week after their interest was piqued.”

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