Police were called in to deal with angry parents after they disrupted a Catholic school board meeting north of Toronto earlier this week over the issue of safe spaces for LGBTQ students.
The parents attended the York Catholic District School Board (YCDSB) meeting Tuesday evening in Aurora to oppose what are known as “safe space” stickers, which are used by some teachers to signal acceptance to LGBTQ children and teens.
Carlo Ravenna, one of the parents, spoke directly to the board about the stickers in a pre-approved deputation.
“They shouldn’t say ‘safe space.’ They should say ‘danger zone,'” he said at the meeting. “Preaching confusion in the guise of inclusivity and acceptance is truly disgusting.”
The parents say the stickers, and any LGBTQ-inclusive messaging, are at odds with their Catholic faith.
‘Homosexuality is considered a sin,’ parent says
Sheree di Vittorio, another parent who made a virtual deputation, told the board, “Catholic schools should not allow transgender or LGBT students to attend.”
“It is most certainly not appropriate to engage kids to be open to these ideologies. There are biblical reasons why homosexuality is considered a sin … regardless of what Pope Francis may think,” she said.
After the two deputations, a crowd of parents in the gallery became increasingly disruptive, the board said in a statement sent to CBC Toronto.
Shouting and cries of,”You’re all pathetic!” and, “Stay away from our kids” can be heard on video of the meeting.
These ‘safe space’ stickers, created by the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, were reissued to York region Catholic school teachers in January. A version of this sticker has been available to teachers since 2013. (Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association )
Eventually, the board members were forced to pause the meeting, York Regional Police were called in and many people in the gallery decided to leave on their own, according to the board’s statement.
The parents’ reaction comes after the stickers were distributed in January, but “safe space” signage has been available to teachers at YCDSB for years, said Mike Totten, president of the York region branch of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association.
“The stickers were first produced by our provincial elective body in 2013,” he told CBC Toronto.
Many of those initial stickers had been lost or damaged over the past 10 years and teachers began asking for replacements about a year ago, Totten said.
The school board and parents weren’t consulted on the reissue because Totten felt he wasn’t introducing anything new.
“I was replacing what they already had,” he said.
The school board stated it “was not made aware of these stickers in advance, but the YCDSB has supported teachers in choosing to display or not display these stickers in their classroom, based on their personal beliefs.”
Paulo de Buono, whose child was at a YCDSB school until last year, is also a teacher with the Toronto Catholic District School Board. Safe space signage is an important tool for teachers to help students feel safe, he said.
“For a group of students who have been marginalized too long, and so, so much in the Ontario Catholic system, they need to know that we’re making an effort to have safe spaces for them,” de Buono said.
He said the school board needs to start open and honest discussions with parents about issues of gender and sexuality to better educate them about equity and inclusion.
“They need to understand that this is Ontario, this is Canada, that there are certain basic human rights that students have,” de Buono said.
“This is a public school board. It may have the word ‘Catholic’ in it, and that includes certain privileges, but it does not include the right to treat students so wrongly.”
Brenda Agnew, a trustee with the Halton Catholic District School Board, agrees that educating parents is crucial.
“I truly believe that if people had a deeper understanding of what those conversations look like, and how that is being woven into our school days, that there would be a higher level of acceptance,” she said.
But some like Kristyn Wong-Tam, the Ontario NDP’s critic for 2SLGBTQ+ issues, say a higher level of intervention may be needed to ensure LGBTQ students in Catholic schools are protected.
“It is absolutely critical for the minister of education and everyone else who works in the ministry to devise a policy so it’s uniform throughout Ontario,” they told CBC Toronto.
Wong-Tam noted there seems to be a discrepancy in how students at Catholic school boards are treated when compared to the province’s public school boards.
“It should not be that some school boards are safe and some school boards are not,” Wong-Tam said.
YCDSB’s statement acknowledges the board has a “legal obligation to ensure the well-being of all our students, according to the government policy.”
CBC Toronto reached out to the provincial minister of education’s office for comment but did not receive a response.
As for the issue of the stickers, Totten is hoping that the board continues to support the program.
“The ultimate goal here is to protect the rights of our students who are in our schools and to make our students aware that our schools are safe for them to be in.”