OTTAWA – The Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Association (OCSTA) has taken a stand for Catholic principles and denominational rights in a comprehensive anti-bullying policy.
In a long-awaited Jan. 25 document Respecting Difference, the OCSTA affirms the Catholic identity of its schools in its comprehensive anti-bullying policy and opposes gay/straight alliances or any single-issue club.
"I know that we will have people who object strenuously," OCSTA president Nancy Kirby said in an interview.
"The bottom line is there are too many kids being bullied," she said. "Our struggle was we felt that all kids who are bullied deserve to have the support."
"That's why our push-back against highlighting one group as opposed to all of the kids who are being bullied," she said.
Bullying is a societal problem that does not just start and end in the schools, but takes place in the home and in the workplace, she said. Kids who bully also need help because "they are bullying for a reason."
But in the Catholic schools, combating bullying must be done in the context of the Catholic faith, she said. The document outlines Church teaching on human sexuality and promotes chastity.
"I don't think taking away somebody's religious rights is going to eradicate bullying," Kirby said.
Catholic schools now have a procedure for setting up Respecting Difference groups: they must be open to all students; must be "respectful of and consistent with Catholic teaching"; have mentors who "must know and be committed to Catholic teachings"; and only use outside speakers who respect Catholic teaching.
"Properly understood, difference is something to be recognized in a society that honours diversity, multiculturalism and human rights," the document says. "Respecting difference does not mean insisting that another person share our views."
Tolerance does not mean agreement, it says, and that includes beliefs on acceptable sexual conduct, it says.
The document says it is based on the assumption that it is possible to affirm the dignity of another person while disagreeing with their views on sexual morality.
The policy may run afoul of Ontario's anti-bullying Bill 13 introduced last fall. It also stands firm against statements by both Education Minister Laurel Broten and Premier Dalton McGuinty late last year that insisted Catholic schools must have gay/straight alliances (GSAs) if students request them.
Broten has called criticisms of the province's anti-bullying policy "homophobic."
"I fully expect that Catholic kids are going to use the word 'gay,"' McGuinty said in December. "I fully expect that Catholic teachers are going to use the word 'gay,' and as a Catholic premier of Ontario I'm going to be talking about gay kids."
But Kirby said she does not expect a legal battle with the province. Instead, she expects a legal challenge may come from an advocacy group opposed to Catholic education.
The OCSTA has had conversations with the province, Kirby said, noting the policy has had input from all the Catholic communities, from the bishops, the trustees, the teachers, students, to Catholic ratepayers. It has also had input from their lawyers.
"When you are trying to get a document to help students within the parameters of government legislation and is very mindful of our Catholic teachings, that takes time," she said. "Every word is checked and rechecked."
The province has been sent a courtesy copy of the document but had not given a response. "I think they understand our concerns," she said.
"The bottom line is about eradicating bullying for whatever reason," she said. In this, the OCSTA and the province are in full agreement.
Kirby said the trustees would like to see changes in Bill 13 and that their association will take part in public hearings on the bill.