Dauphin school division discusses pronoun policy

Dauphin school trustees are considering the creation of a pronoun policy requiring teachers to obtain parental consent to use a student’s preferred name and gender identity, if they are under 16, and inform families about related changes requested by adult learners.

Elected officials in the Mountain View School Division have been hearing from proponents of increased “parental rights” in kindergarten-to-Grade 12 buildings and mulling over possible actions to address their concerns in recent weeks.

“We are responsible to the public. Yes, we provide a safe and caring environment for the students but the parents of those students — the legal guardians — are the ones that we are responsible and reporting to,” vice-chairman Jason Gryba said during a board meeting Oct. 23.

“They have, I believe, every legal right to be notified or to give their consent, whether it’s vaccinations coming in, whether it’s name changes, whether it’s their kid has been caught vaping.”

New Brunswick and Saskatchewan’s newly-announced pronoun policies, as well as Manitoba’s guidelines on supporting transgender and gender diverse students, were on the meeting agenda.

At the time, trustee Charlene Gulak said policy-making in other jurisdictions appears to be “driven by fear and divisiveness.”

Several of her board colleagues, including Kerri Wieler and Paul Coffey, countered her perspective, speaking in favour of enhanced consent protocols in the division. “I don’t think school trumps home,” Wieler said.

Ultimately, the board voted to defer the subject to its policy committee for further consideration.

“It’s just a waste of time and energy. There are so many other concerns that need the board’s attention and this is just a distraction,” said Cam Bennet, a career teacher and taxpayer in Dauphin, who retired from the community’s high school in June.

Bennet said cracking down on pronoun use in schools will only further marginalize LGBTTQ+ youth — a group of students who face an increased risk of suicide and mental health issues compared to their peers.

The president of the local teachers association echoed those comments; Chance Henderson said his members believe it is essential to support all students and give them access to “information they need to navigate their way through this world.”

On Tuesday, Mountain View superintendent Stephen Jaddock deferred comment to the board of trustees.

When reached by phone, chairman Gabe Mercier — who was not in attendance at the Oct. 23 meeting — played down the ongoing discussions occurring among members of the policy committee.

The group is discussing “student safety and inclusion, and the role of parents,” Mercier said.

“Nothing is cast in stone. Both the board members and communities have the right to discuss issues. We are just at the discussion stage. Many discussions or ideas sometimes die in committee,” he said, adding the board will follow provincial guidelines and it is unlikely there will be an entirely new policy created.

On Monday, during the board’s most recent public meeting, a grandmother registered as a delegation to demand trustees remove LGBTTQ+ materials in schools, declare there are no mature minors in K-12 buildings and cease vaccinations inside its facilities.

(Public health nurses offer a series of routine vaccines to students who have submitted signed consent forms ahead of time as part of Manitoba’s annual school immunization program.)

“I take my children to church to learn about God. We do not send our children to school to learn about or be indoctrinated in (LGBTTQ+) or incorrect pronouns,” Lorlie Engbrecht told trustees.

Engbrecht alleged there are “hints of gender dysphoria within (curricular materials).” She then submitted a petition with 47 signatures on it.

Over the last 25 years, there’s been a push to diversify the names of fictional individuals in math questions and other classroom resources to ensure students see themselves reflected in the materials they are studying, Bennet said.

The retired teacher said using gender-neutral pronouns in a lesson prompt is a “tiny nugget of acceptance that hurts no one.”

He added: “I can tell you, if I had that ability (to indoctrinate children) as a teacher, I would’ve chosen keeping an organized binder — that’s the thing I would’ve indoctrinated them in. It’s ridiculous. The entire thing is unfounded and it’s fear-based.”

Manitoba Education Minister Nello Altomare noted trustees are elected officials who have a duty to listen to their community members and act accordingly.

Altomare also said his office would “strongly discourage” any board from instituting a blanket policy on student pronoun usage in schools.

“Right now, coming out of the (COVID-19) pandemic, our focus needs to be on kids — making sure they’re at school, making sure they get the support they need,” he said, adding his priority is ensuring children feel safe and included at school.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press