Alberta’s Catholic Schools Receive Poor Grades on LGBT Policies

September 18, 2016
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Results from “Making the Grade” report

By Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, September 18, 2016

Catholic school districts in Alberta received poor grades for their LGBT policies, according to a new report from the organization “Public Interest Alberta.”

Professor Kristopher Wells authored the report, “Making the Grade,” after conducting an analysis of the LGBT policies for four school districts. Wells, who directs the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta, studied the Grand Prairie Catholic Schools and the Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools as part of the report. The Edmonton Journal reported further:

“Wells evaluated four policies based on six criteria, including whether it complied with provincial legislation, protected students and staff members’ privacy, and spelled out how schools will support transgender and non-binary people.

“He said shortcomings include apparent restrictions on requesting gay-straight alliances in some Catholic school districts. Grande Prairie and St. Albert Catholic districts both have policies saying the groups will ‘normally’ be established at the Grade 7-to-12 levels, that the principal has to agree to the club’s name, and must approve any material going before the group.

“The report also said some districts did not include protections for students’ families or staff who are gender diverse, and failed to spell out how transgender people will be directed to bathrooms or change rooms, and join sports teams.”

Both Catholic districts received a D, but have pushed back against Wells’ report. Karl Germann, superintendent of Grand Prairie Catholic Schools, said the provincial Ministry of Education had approved its policies on inclusion. Germann said students are “loved and cared for,” in addition to legal compliance. David Keohane, superintendent of Greater St. Alberta Catholic School District, claimed the report was incomplete.

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Professor Kristopher Wells

Wells criticized the lack of a unified policy in the province, which makes finding and understanding a given district’s policies on gender and sexuality confusing. He told the Edmonton Journal:

” ‘Unequivocally, any student who walks through any school in this province should be entitled to the same supports, the same resources, the same protections regardless of where they go to school.’ “

Joel French, executive director of Public Interest Alberta, suggested the Ministry of Education post every district’s policies in a central and accessible place.Every school system in Alberta had to submit their LGBT policies for review last March. Thus far, the Ministry and Minister David Eggen have not released which districts have LGBT policies which are legally compliant and which are insufficient.

In related news, the leader of Alberta’s Liberal Party, David Swann, has said school districts which do not meet new LGBTQ standards should potentially have their funding and charters withdrawn. He told CBC:

” ‘The legislation, supported by every provincial party, and the policies set forth by the government, were created to provide kids with the right to be who they are. . .No organization, especially a school, should have the ability to take those rights away.’ “

Swann also said reparative therapy should be banned. His comments come after a Baptist leader said LGBTQ policies should and would be refused as they violate religious freedom.

Disputes about implementing policies supportive of LGBTQ students in Alberta have been ongoing for two years now. All 61 districts in the province submitted draft policies last March, but preceding these submissions there were debates in several Catholic systems. Particularly intense were disputes among the Edmonton Catholic School Board, whose meetings erupted in shouting and eventually necessitated outside mediation.

Alberta’s bishops weighed in, too, with one describing the LGBT guidelines as “totalitarian,” though the bishops eventually met with Minister Eggen. It should also be noted that the Greater St. Albert Catholic School District has spent nearly $400,000 defending its discriminatory firing of transgender teacher Jan Buterman.

The disputes in Alberta have been detrimental to students, faculty, parents, the church, and the wider community. Wells’ failing grades for these two districts may be deserved, but they should not be the case. Catholic education should receive straight A’s when it comes to welcoming and supporting its students–especially LGBTQ students. The good news is that it is never too late to reverse bad policies and renew a commitment to ensuring every student can flourish in Catholic schools.

 

 


New Catholic School Policies Threaten LGBT Students with Expulsion

September 9, 2016

dolr14There’s not much of the Catholic Catechism’s call for “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” toward LGBT people in Arkansas’ Catholic schools’ new policies which enforce the idea that LGBT youth should remain closeted and quiet.

Directives about LGBT topics are part of changes made this year to the Catholic Schools Policy Manual for the Diocese of Little Rock, which covers the entire state of Arkansas. Regarding sexual orientation, the Manual says:

“Students may not advocate, celebrate, or express same-sex attraction in such a way as to cause confusion or distraction in the context of Catholic school classes, activities, or events. When discussing homosexuality or homosexual inclinations, the use of the term ‘same-sex attraction’ is preferred, as it is a more appropriate description in accordance with the truths of Catholic faith and morals.”

In a section titled “Gender Dysphoria (Transgenderism),” the Manual said students should conduct themselves “in a manner consistent with their biological sex.” Schools will treat students similarly when it comes to restroom use, uniforms, school dances, and more. The Manual continued:

“If a student’s expression of gender, sexual identity, or sexuality should cause confusion or disruption at the school, or if it should mislead others, cause scandal, or have the potential for causing scandal, then the matter will first be discussed with the student and his/her parents. If the issue is not resolved to the satisfaction of the school, whose primary goal must always be to uphold Catholic truths and principles, then the student may be dismissed from the school, after the parents are first given the opportunity to withdraw the student from the school.”

The Manual states that, even if alumni procure legal name changes, any documents will be issued in the following way, “Original Name, n.k.a. New Legal Name” (“n.k.a.” stands for “now known as”) These policies will affect over 6,700 students in the diocese’s 27 Catholic schools, reported THV 11.

The diocese is defending these policies by saying they adhere to church teaching and preserve Catholic identity, but students, alumni, and parents disagree. Katy Simmons, a parent of a student at Catholic High School for Boys, Little Rock, said the Manual “does not convey the message I want my son to learn.” A current student, who remained anonymous, described the Manual as “non-Christ-like and discriminatory” and said the diocese should be “much more merciful about this.”

Recent graduate Tyler Gibbons, a gay student who was part of the first same-gender couple welcomed to Catholic High School for Boys’ prom, said the school was “where [LGBT peers] felt safe” to find who they are and what they seek in life. But that is no longer the case because there is now “fear of being reprimanded by the diocese.”

Sarah Vestal, another alumna of Catholic High School for Boys, told THV 11 she believes that the diocese’s directives are partly responding to her, as she is the school’s first transgender graduate:

” ‘I came out and came back for my 40th high school reunion last year.  So, they had to face me for the first time.’ . . . Vestal said she and Bishop Taylor had ideas about which bathroom she should be allowed to use.  She said Taylor also will not allow her to have a copy of her diploma with her new name. . .Vestal and others said they have spoken to Taylor directly, and he has refused to remove the addendum.”

Tippi McCullough, who was fired in 2013 from Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock because she married her wife, said that if the diocese does not “want to bring scandal against your school, then don’t do things that discriminate against children.”

Some Catholic schools have instituted policies which restrict LGBT youth, such as banning same-gender prom dates or using biological sex in official documents. A Catholic high school in Rhode Island even attempted to ban transgender students, though that decision was withdrawn after alumni protested.

But the Arkansas policies seem wholly different in scope and intensity. The Manual explicitly eliminates almost every support that might be offered to LGBT students, and then goes further to stifle students’ expression. Threatening expulsion for students who even “have the potential for causing scandal” is pastorally-insensitive and damaging to student’s development.

These policies were clearly not written by people with expertise in education, adolescent development, LGBT issues, or even church teaching. Admonitions to only use “same-sex attraction” contradicts the pope, who has used the word “gay” when speaking about homosexuality. These policies may be enforcing a set of values, but those values are not Catholic.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


In Wake of Student’s Suicide, Catholic Parents Call for Safe Schools

August 17, 2016
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Daniel Fitzpatrick

Catholic parents of LGBT children are expressing their sorrow over a teenager’s suicide in New York, as well as their commitment to ensuring Catholic education is safe for all students.

Daniel Fitzpatrick died by suicide on August 11, having faced intense bullying from classmates at Holy Angels Catholic Academy in Brooklyn. He left a note in which Fitzpatrick said, “I gave up. The teachers didn’t do anything. . .I wanted to get out.”

The Board of Fortunate Families, an organization by and for Catholic parents of LGBT children, released a statement on Monday saying it was “saddened to hear” about Fitzpatrick’s death:

“We on the board of Fortunate Families are painfully aware that any child who is badgered and bullied is at greater risk for isolation, marginalization, depression, and sadly, suicide. Catholic Social Teaching holds that all of our children are persons who deserve life, dignity, respect and the freedom to live their potential to the fullest. All our children deserve to be educated in environments that embody that social teaching.”

A board member who lost a child to suicide acknowledged that suicide is the second leading cause of death in young adults and that suicides are deeply painful for the families and communities left behind. As they bury their son and brother, the Fitzpatrick family is considering, too, how to end bullying. A crowdfunding page which sought to raise money for unexpected funeral expenses has now raised more than $120,000. The family said they wish to use these funds to “give Daniel a proper memorial, as well as shine a bright light on the bullying that killed him. . .and allow for his legacy to live on.”

The student’s father, Daniel Fitzpatrick, posted a heart-wrenching video to Facebook. He spoke lovingly about his son, and affirmed his own commitment to intervene against bullying if he encounters it, including against LGBT youth:

“No parent should have to bury their child. No child should have to go through what my son went through. . .Bullying unfortunately is an epidemic. It ain’t right. . .If I ever see any child in my life from now on and I witness them and I see doesn’t matter if its boy, girl, straight, bi, transgender now. If they’re bullied, I will knock them out.”

Though Fitzpatrick did not identify as an LGBT person as far as anyone knew (he was bullied about his weight and his grades), his death is a moment for Catholic educators to reflect on the myriad ways in which schools are made unsafe. This includes problems for students of diverse sexual and gender identities, and students who may be questioning their identities. The Fortunate Families Board continued:

“We call on all involved in Catholic education to re-double efforts to prevent bullying and assist each child to reach their full potential, regardless of physical attributes, academic achievements or other characteristics which may make a student seem ‘different.’

“Although too late for Daniel, we are glad to see that the Brooklyn Diocese is re-examining its bullying prevention policies and training, and we pray that these also apply to students bullied because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.”

Catholic education intends to form young people through faith to live flourishing lives, and to live authentically as themselves in service to others. As such, the church’s educational ministries should be sanctuaries for young people to come to know themselves, discern deep questions, and feel God’s love. Mercy and inclusion should be the hallmarks of every Catholic school. Earlier this week, educator Kevin Welbes Godin of Egale Canada wrote about the work Ontario’s teachers have done to create safer Catholic schools for LGBT students.

That good work is happening elsewhere, but is not widespread enough yet, and it is not happening quickly enough. As another school year begins, and we pray for Daniel Fitzpatrick and his family, let us each consider how we – as parents, as students, as teachers, as alumni, and as the faithful – might contribute so that Catholic education is safer and more inclusive of all God’s children.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 


Around the Globe, LGBT Progress in Catholic Education is Slow, But Happening

July 22, 2016

handsCatholic education is a foremost way by which the church influences the world, educating millions of students, Catholic and non-Catholic, globally. Given this impact, how church officials address LGBT issues matters significantly and is therefore, frequently, a source of contention. But when done well, Catholic education can do much good for LGBT youth and their peers. This Bondings 2.0 post highlights how the complexities are playing out in several countries.

Scotland

The Catholic Church in Scotland will begin training its teachers for gender and sexuality competency inclusive of LGBTI concerns, reported Pink NewsA church spokesperson said the church has a “zero tolerance approach” to end discrimination, continuing:

” ‘The Church is working with the Catholic Head Teacher association to ensure that all teachers have adequate knowledge, understanding, and training and feel confident in addressing all aspects of relationships education, including LGBTI matters, in an appropriate and sensitive way.’ “

This commitment comes as the whole nation of Scotland  focuses on inclusion in schools, led by the campaign Time for Inclusive Education (TIE) and endorsed by all major political parties. Sixteen years ago, legislators repealed Section 28 which had barred gay-positive education in schools. The repeal did, however, not address what material should be taught. TIE’s objective now, according to The Heraldis “calling for mandatory teaching of LGBTI issues in schools to end discrimination and bullying” to save lives and equalize all students.

Questions remain about how the church’s stated commitment will be concretely enacted, given negative church teachings on homosexuality, For instance, working only through Catholic organizations may limit engagement with actual LGBT people and their families. KaleidoScot noted:

“The ‘appropriate and sensitive’ way to deal with such matters would arguably be through engagement with the very people directly affected, and liaison with teaching unions and other non-Catholic organisations would surely inform the Church’s thinking. The statement also fails to give any commitment to the teaching of LGBTI matters in Catholic schools. Furthermore, in some respects, the Church spokesperson’s statement suggests that it fails to see the need for significant changes in the way its schools operate.”

It remains to be seen what the Scottish Catholic Church’s commitment to training teachers will mean; hopefully, it will involve liberating education rather then relying on past methods which have suppressed LGBT students and staff.

Australia

In Australia, politicians are debating the Safe Schools Program to assist LGBT students, and the discussion has emerged in Catholic circles.

Peter Norden, a professor at RMIT University and a former Jesuit priest, said failing to support LGBT youth may violate international law.  Norden  published an article in the Australian Journal of Human Rights saying church teaching about homosexuality can harm young students. According to The Age, he wrote :

” ‘In many ways, same-sex attracted students are being asked to remain voiceless and invisible in some Catholic schools. . .For students that are same-sex attracted, they can be treated like second class citizens.’ “

Australian Catholic schools, which educate a fifth of the country’s students, may violate the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child, Norden said. This Convention guarantees free expression, protection from violence, and dignified education. But a 2006 study of Catholic school students by Norden found high rates of self-injury and suicide, calling into question whether church officials were attending to LGBT youth’s needs:

” ‘You would hope an organisation that values empathy, mercy and engagement might have cause to review their situation.”

LGBT organizations have expressed concerns with Catholic education which, as in the United States, has religious exemptions for how it operates. Micah Scott of the Minus 18, an LGBTI youth organization, told The Age:

” ‘Many topics, including sexual and gender diversity, are unspoken. It sends a message to already vulnerable young people that who they are is institutionally forbidden, and that they should be ashamed of their identity.’ “

Catholic officials have pushed back on these claims, including Ross Fox who directs the National Catholic Education Commission and Stephen Elder, chief executive of Catholic Education Melbourne, who said schools were already focusing on eliminating bullying and unsafe behaviors.

On the other hand, Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher’s election document listed the Safe Schools Program as one of the top four issues about which Catholics should be concerned, two others being religious liberty and marriage. The document says the Program “introduces children and teens to the concept of ‘gender fluidity’ and includes activites such as role-playing being in a sexually active same-sex relationship.”

Intrachurch conflicts were apparent, too, during a panel at the National Catholic Education Commission Conference held in June, reported The Record. Panelists largely opposed a proposed plebiscite on marriage equality, including Bishop Greg O’Kelly of Port Pirie who said the church should not campaign on the issue, but also that same-gender marriages have “submerged” the rights of children. But Carmel Nash, deputy chair of Catholic School Parents Australia, said though the church’s teachings should be respected, “many parents have probably, rightly or wrongly, moved on from the at view” and they should be respected having done so, too.

Canada

Alberta’s Catholic schools have been wracked by LGBT controversy for over a year. The Edmonton Catholic School Board ‘s consideration of a transgender policy led to one meeting become a “shouting match” last fall.  Additionally, the Board approved“just discrimination” in schools as a draft policy last December.

A new independent report questions whether the Board remains viable, noted the CBC. Donald Cummings, a consultant and the report’s author, described the Edmonton Boards governance challenges as “systemic, deep and resistant to change.” He said third-party mediation would be necessary to resolve problems. Alberta’s Education Minister, David Eggen, has intervened and assigned a deputy minister to oversee improvements by and greater accountability for the Board.

Catholic educators worldwide are increasingly being asked to grapple with LGBT inclusion and support, as more students come out and at younger ages, and more faculty and staff enter into same-gender relationships or marriages.

But one Canadian school in Toronto, Loretto College School, revealed a powerful way forward that helps entire communities. Jenna Tenn-Yuk, a spoken word artist, reported on Health and Wellness day at the all-girls high school. During  the day’s assembly, the school’s chaplain and six other staff affirmed LGBT students and championed gay-straight alliances. Tenn-Yuk wrote on her blog:

“Staff were standing in solidarity with LGBTQ+ students at the front of the school. . .I was deeply moved and quite emotional before I had to speak. I kept thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is happening right now. How would my life be different is this happened at my Catholic high school?’ . . .

“There was so much light and warmth in the room and it was an honour to be in that space. This is the start of something beautiful and will impact generations of students to come.”

That light and warmth should be what every student in Catholic education experiences, especially those who are marginalized like LGBT students. This post shows that while progress is, in many ways, being made, much work remains.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 

 

 


Counting the Educational Costs of LGBT-Negative Acts

May 7, 2016
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Jan Buterman

When a Catholic institution expels an employee in an LGBT dispute or refuses to support LGBT students, there often seems to be little consideration about the consequences. Two incidents in Alberta, Canada spotlight some costs to church institutions which LGBT-negative actions and policies can entail.

Legal Costs at $367,188 and Rising

Newly-released documents reveal that the Greater St. Albert Catholic School District has spent at least $367,188 defending its firing of transgender teacher Jan Buterman. Actual costs to the district may be higher as the documents only cover the years 2009-2013, but the legal battle is ongoing.

Fired after he transitioned in 2008, Buterman filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission the following year, and has fought for justice since then. Buterman explained to the Edmonton Journal that having these documents made public is important for fiscal transparency and accountability. Institutions which act inappropriately should not, in the legal process, be allowed to “acquire the right to silence anyone from mentioning it ever again.” Buterman said, too, that most people would not consider these high legal costs as “a totally typical expense for a school board.”

Duncan Kinney, executive director of Progress Alberta which obtained the documents through a public records request, called the school’s legal defense “a waste of taxpayers’ money” [Editor’s Note:  Catholic schools in Canada receive government funding.] Kinney continued:

” ‘We think taxpayers should know how much this 100-per-cent publicly funded school board is spending on a legal case to determine whether they can fire someone for being transgender. . .This is cash that could have gone to teachers and students.’ “

Kristopher Wells, director of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta, said the district’s legal costs are a “shocking misuse of funds.” According to the St. Albert GazetteWells questioned this spending:

” ‘How can they possibly justify diverting that money out of the classroom to fund what many people feel is a discriminatory act? . . .Why won’t they allow a transgender teacher to teach in St. Albert schools?’ “

Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools is refusing to comment. Buterman is committed to keep fighting, knowing he is not the only transgender person unjustly fired in Alberta but that not all have the means to challenge such actions.

Church Workers’ Confidence Plunging

In another story, a new survey reported by the Edmonton Journal found that just 60% of employees who work for the Edmonton Catholic Schools Board have confidence in the performance of board trustees and Superintendent Joan Carr.

Employees’ confidence dropped 25% since the 2014 survey, likely attributed to the Board’s treatment of LGBT issues, such as a refusal to adopt transgender supportive policies and a reluctance to accept LGBT student groups. The Board’s October 2015 meeting erupted into a “shouting match” and in December trustees approved a draft policy which would allow “just discrimination” towards some youth. An LGBTQ policy finally approved this spring is currently under review by the Alberta Ministry of Education.

Greg Carabine, union president of Edmonton Catholic Teachers Local 54, said teachers are being asked about this embarrassing situation. He added that the Board’s public disputes “makes it harder for all of us” and imperils student safety.

Board trustees downplayed the survey’s findings in their latest meeting. Chair Marilyn Bergstra said employees have understood the issues “solely through the media,” and trustees should find a way to engage employees directly to help raise confidence.

Counting the Costs

These two incidents reveal a larger truth about the steep costs which LGBT-negative approaches inflict on Catholic education. Acknowledging these costs is not diverting attention from the harm done to fired church workers and their families or to LGBTQ youth who suffer at non-affirming Catholic schools; it only adds to that harm.

First, school officials’ decisions to defend discrimination in costly legal fights steals already limited funds from the students who should be receiving them. In Alberta, there are specific questions about what public funding of religious education should mean. Canadian taxpayers don’t seem to be in agreement that they should fund discrimination against transgender educators.

Even in locations where Catholic education is privately funded, such as in the U.S., parents, alumni, and local communities should similarly question school officials’ priorities in firing decisions.

Second,  resistance to LGBT-supportive policies–whether it is school boards or bishops or educators themselves– undercuts the mission of Catholic education. Institutions claim such actions are about advancing Catholic identity, but the opposite is true. Church workers’ gifts are lost, and performance may suffer from those workers who remain. Time and again, when Catholic institutions act unjustly on LGBT matters, the communities react swiftly and critically. Unjust actions also put LGBTQ youth at greater risk. Opportunities to proclaim the Good News are severely limited, weakened by charges of hypocrisy. Pain and fallout abound.

With nearly $400,000 spent on a single church firing alone and church worker confidence plummeting, Alberta’s Catholic school officials should ponder whether their fight against LGBT equality is really righteous and really worth the costs. These incidents in Alberta should cause Catholic officials everywhere else to reflect similarly.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


LGBTQ Policies Fight in Alberta Unresolved After Deadline Passes

April 4, 2016
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Education Minister David Eggen holding LGBTQ guidelines released in January that helped inform new policies

As of March 31st ,the 61 schools districts in Canada’s Alberta province submitted draft LGBTQ policies, including all government-funded Catholic schools. For months, the issue of drafting these policies has caused disputes, and even after this latest step there is not yet a visible resolution.

Alberta school districts were required to submit draft policies to the provincial government’s Education Ministry, which will now review them to ensure legal compliance. This ends a process that Minister David Eggen called “a very successful exercise,” but is likely not the end. All 17 Catholic districts submitted policies, though the policies’ contents, as well as some officials’ willingness to participate in the process, have varied.  For example:

  • The Medicine Hat Catholic Board of Education added protections for sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression into existing statements.
  • Multiple districts developed similar policies, which the Edmonton Journal noted, were “using identical phrases, and in some cases, written in the same fonts.” These included the Holy Family Catholic Regional School DivisionGrande Prairie and District Catholic SchoolsElk Island Catholic Schools, and Edmonton Catholic Schools, which had earlier approved a policy  described as “practically meaningless.”
  • St. Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic Schools in Leduc remained silent about gender identity.
  • Fort McMurray Catholic Schools will require transgender students to use only gender neutral restrooms and private locker rooms.
  • Calgary Catholic Schools has yet to release its policy to the public, but Calgary’s Bishop Fred Henry said if the Education Ministry refused to budge, “we’re going to end up in court,” according to a columnist in the 

Eggen differed from Henry’s approach, reaffirming the Education Ministry’s commitment to finding resolutions which protect human rights while respecting “religious sensitivities.” He told the Calgary Herald:

“Transgender students, LGBTQ youth, will have the same rights and freedoms as any other child here in the province of Alberta. . . We’re not out to do anything but protect a very vulnerable group of students.”

Despite his desire for common ground, that has included a meeting with the bishops, Eggen and the Education Ministry can try to motivate districts’ compliance through funding cuts or the dissolution of school boards if necessary. Minister Eggen said all policies should be in place by the coming academic year.

The possibility of sanctions has arisen before. Bishop Henry’s comments about a lawsuit are but the latest incident from Catholic officials who have opposed these policies aimed at protecting LGBTQ students. Henry himself described LGBTQ guidelines released by the Education Ministry in January as “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic,” writing a second letter in which he refused to apologize for these comments. Other bishops released their own letters of concern, though with far less hyperbole.

The Edmonton Catholic School Board’s actions around a transgender policy have repeatedly made headlines since last summer. Their meetings erupted into a “shouting match” last fall and the Board approved “just discrimination” of some youth in a draft policy last December.

As this process in Alberta ends one stage and begins another, it is worth noting the role Catholic education has played beyond simply being a battleground. This entire process began after a 7-year-old transgender student in Edmonton Catholic Schools sought restroom use consistent with her gender identity. While ecclesial and education officials’ reactions have been split about responding, it was Catholic education which kickstarted a province-wide conversation about sexuality and gender identity.

That conversation has now advanced, but is not over as it seems likely some Catholic districts’ policies will either not meet the legal requirements or be widely different from optional guidelines released in February. But whatever comes next, a question from a columnist in Metro News should help all involved keep perspective:

“. . . [I]n the battle between civil rights and religious freedoms how many LGBTQ children will be collateral damage?”

Charged rhetoric and confrontation by Catholic officials has not prioritized students’ well-being to this point. Hopefully, Catholic bishops and school board members will come to see that protecting LGBTQ students is a vital part of Catholic education and not at odds with the schools’ missions. Otherwise, the process of developing LGBTQ-specific policies may continue for many months, and that would be a defeat for all.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Catholic School Backs Away from Banning Transgender Students

March 29, 2016
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Students at Mount Saint Charles Academy

A Catholic high school in Rhode Island has taken a step away from its ban on transgender students  after receiving sustained criticism from alumni and the local community.  This move follows earlier conciliatory statements from officials at Mount Saint Charles Academy (MSC), Woonsocket, attempted to explain its original ill-conceived policy banning transgender students from enrolling.

In their latest statement, quoted by an MSC school board member at The Valley Breeze, MSC officials said that they deeply regret “unintended hurt feelings at and seeming insensitivity of our policy regarding the acceptance of transgender young people.” The policy that banned trans students was recently removed from the online version of the Parent-Student Handbook for 2016-2017.

That action, coupled by an invitation from MSC President Herve Richer to meet for discussion, was welcomed by those involved with the Facebook group “Concerned Alumni of Mount Saint Charles.” Organizers explained in their own statement, reported by RIFuture.org:

“Mount has always been a home to us, and we are happy to see that they understand our concern and agree the language in the policy needs to be changed and a solution for accommodation implemented. We will be accepting an offer to go to a meeting with the administration to add our help and talent to finding a solution for all parties.”

2004 graduate Mike Martin told NBC 10 he was glad the discriminatory policy had been removed noting that it was progress toward the institution living up to “what it taught me to do, which was to accept people for being people.”

Another alumnus, Brendan DeBeasi, crowdfunded over $5,000 in just two days to help MSC develop and implement accommodations for trans students, reported The Valley Breeze. DeBeasi spoke to the impact Catholic education had in rallying alumni to the defense of LGBT students:

“It is my belief that Mount did not include this provision intentionally out of hate. .Students at MSC are taught acceptance, love, and service. . .It was these values Mount instilled in us that led to the rapid organization against this new policy.”

But what meaning can be attributed to the handbook changes seems somewhat unclear. In a The Valley Breeze news report, President Richer said that he had welcomed the debate which had emerged at the school and on Facebook, and again explained:

“[Richer] said school officials are also currently revisiting the handbook to see if the policy was ‘phrased correctly.’

“Our conversation has never been about whether or not we want transgender students in our building. It’s been: How can we serve transgender students?”

This statement echoes MSC’s earlier explanation that, in implementing a ban on trans students, the school actually aimed to help trans students by acknowledging the school had no support system in place. Some critics questioned the logic of that rationale.  The school has not yet made a statement of explicit openness to trans students, nordid MSC officials offer information about any policy for admitting trans applicants. This lack of clarity leaves the situation unresolved, but this latest round shows that a way for reconciliation and for growth is still available.

Thomas Ward, a new MSC board member, welcomed the handbook change as the school’s latest evolution in its 92-year history and admitted more work was needed to accommodate all genders. He wrote in The Valley Breeze:

“Those hurtful – and completely unnecessary – lines have now been removed, and I’m glad they have. . .Mount’s been here before! As boarders left, the girls arrived, and the all-boys school had to accommodate young women they had never welcomed before. . .It has always been this way. Now, there is more evolving to do.”

Ward, who is also a 1971 alumnus  and parent of former students, pointed to Bishop Guertin High School in Nashua, New Hampshire, about which he wrote:

“A sister school to Mount, also founded and run by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, it currently serves a transgender student, and accommodates them. Mount has never been asked to. No doubt, in time, that will change. We should learn a lot before that day comes.”

Removing the ban on transgender students from MSC’s Handbook online is a start. Such a step would be aided by administrators’ assurance that not only would such policies never reappear but that MSC would be adding gender identity to its non-discrimination protections for all community members. Meeting with concerned alumni and LGBT advocates will be beneficial, too, but only if administrators are really willing to hear criticism and to prioritize the steps necessary to provide transgender accommodations.

Thomas Ward is completely correct that, if it has not already happened, soon enough MSC will need to help students of all genders flourish. Let’s hope that other board members and the entire MSC community will join him to thoughtfully and quickly make MSC a more inclusive space, not only because they face public criticism but because doing so is intrinsically connected to the school’s Catholic mission. They could become a shining example to hundreds of other Catholic high schools.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry