As public debate over sex education in schools has been escalating across the country, Nova Scotia teachers and administrators have been fielding more questions and complaints, and in some cases, struggling to respond.
Documents obtained by CBC News through access to information laws provide a glimpse into what the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and regional centres for education have recently heard from parents.
Some are worried LGBTQ youth are not safe at school and are calling for stronger policies to ensure the gender identity of students is respected.
Others are worried their children are being exposed to inappropriate material, in secret, and want conversations about gender and sexuality to be either restricted, or left out of classrooms entirely.
A French elementary school in Bedford offers an example of how schools are caught in the middle.
Neither side happy
In April 2023, students at Ecole Beaubassin attended sex-ed workshops put on by a guest.
According to a letter sent to Beaubassin families by the director of the French school board, the Conseil scolaire acadian provincial (CSAP), the workshops covered the topics of DNA, biological sex, gender identity, non-cisgender terminology and gender expression.
“Sessions with students on diversity seem to have generated strong reactions from members of the community,” the letter said.
The CSAP stopped offering the workshops and apologized to families for not advising them about the content ahead of time.
But it seems the school board could do no right. The apology generated a strong reaction of its own. One parent said in an email to the education minister that the CSAP was failing to maintain a “safe, positive and inclusive learning environment for LGBTQIA+ students.”
Halting the program, the parent said, “deprives students of vital education and it signals to them that their dignity and well-being is not a priority.”
‘A growing number of inquiries’
The dispute at Beaubassin is not unique. A September 2023 email between staff with the education department refers to a “growing number of inquiries related to health education” and the need for a cohesive response.
More than a dozen of those inquiries were included in documents released to CBC dating back to the start of the 2022-2023 school year.
One parent in Fall River emailed the deputy minister of education to say they were shocked when their two daughters had come home from school one day saying they’d learned they could be a boy or a girl.
“We are now having to ‘un-teach’ the brainwashing & damage that was done,” they said.
“You are supposed to be supporting the education of our children, and by teaching them false biology its extremely unethical. You may as well tell the kids the world is flat!”
The name of the parent and all members of the public were redacted from the documents.
The department responded to the parent with assurances that all material is age-appropriate and follows national and international guidelines.
Opting out of sex ed
In another case, a parent in Antigonish emailed their daughter’s junior high asking for a conversation, and later for their daughter to be excused from health classes because they didn’t want her to participate in conversations about “pronouns, transgenderism and LGBTQ.”
“I don’t think it is your responsibility to teach this. I WILL!!! The only things that I want taught to my kids is Science, Math; History; skill trades and so forth,” the parent said.
The school principal responded saying someone would have to pick the student up and return her after health class because she couldn’t be left unsupervised, to which the parent responded: “Well let me know when this crap is being taught and I will come there and supervise her myself.”
CBC spoke to several parents about sex education, but none wanted to go on the record for fear that their children would be alienated by their peers or their views would be misunderstood, given how contentious the topic has become.
Province providing scripts
The documents released to CBC also show discussions between educators about how to handle the issue.
In an email last August, a staff member of the Strait Regional Centre for Education advised teachers and principals to narrow in on the specific concerns of parents, and to have discussions early in the school year about the topics that would come up in health classes.
“I don’t believe that exempting [students] from the classroom is the solution as all students will miss an integral part of cultural understanding,” the email said.
In early September 2023, department staff discussed ongoing work to create canned responses for questions and complaints about health education.
“The school regions have been looking for the statements to ensure their staff can respond similarly,” an internal email said.
Later that month, the province sent six pages of scripted responses to all the regional centres and the CSAP. Inclusivity and the importance of imparting comprehensive and factual sexual health information are common themes in the scripts.
Kids deserve information, advocate says
Abbey Ferguson, executive director of the Halifax Sexual Health Centre, said the debate around sex education in schools has her on “high alert.”
She’s worried that some parents’ aversion to sex education could lead to formal restrictions on third-party educators entering classrooms, which happened in Saskatchewan last year.
“All kids deserve to have the information across the board. No matter what your moral or philosophical or religious reasons are,” she said.
Ferguson said when sex education is restricted, either because experts aren’t allowed to enter schools or because parents opt out of health class, kids and youth remain curious and will seek answers to their questions, but they risk finding incorrect or incomplete answers.
In Ferguson’s eyes, the biggest problem with sex education in Nova Scotia is inconsistency.
She often goes to schools, by invitation, to provide resources and give presentations to students on sexual health, and while she meets some students who are well informed, others are behind.
Ferguson said the provincial curriculum “looks pretty OK,” but she doesn’t think it’s always adequately delivered.
She said she’s encountered students in high school who misunderstand the basics of human anatomy and reproduction, signalling they didn’t hit important benchmarks in earlier grades.
Ferguson said concerns about sex education are natural and understandable. She said some parents are simply “not ready to picture their youth as sexual beings, even though that is a reality.”
“That can be challenging, though I think that can be addressed in more holistic ways like conversations with the school board and with educators to reassure folks, like, this is what the information is, it’s not a secret.”