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Halton Catholic board SIDE-steps gay-straight alliances

Gay-straight alliances are no longer officially banned at the Halton Catholic District School Board, but they're not allowed, either.

"It's not our intention at this time to offer gay-straight alliances," director of education Michael Pautler told trustees at a board meeting late Tuesday.

Trustees approved a second reading of a new policy that directs students to instead form groups called SIDE (safety, inclusivity, diversity, equity) spaces, which will be run by staff trained in the guidelines developed by the Institute for Catholic Education "to assist students of same-sex orientation."

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Those guidelines are "unfortunately inequitable and discriminatory towards LGBT students," according to Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, a representative from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association who addressed trustees before the vote.

Gay and lesbian teens are at least four times as likely to attempt suicide as heterosexual teens and asking them to form SIDE spaces instead of GSAs is like "disbanding the basketball team and telling the athletes that they can only join an all-purpose sports club," she said.

The controversy began shortly after the Ontario Ministry of Education issued new requirements that school boards draft equity and inclusion policies and suggested students be allowed to form GSAs. The suggestion proved problematic for Roman Catholic schools, which are also guided by church doctrine that condemns homosexual activity.

Instead of promoting inclusivity, the resulting debate has fuelled bullying in the form of intimidation and homophobic taunts at one Catholic high school in Mississauga.

A spokesman for the ministry said that support groups for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) youth can take many forms, but that a group that counsels them to reform their sexuality is not a suitable alternative.

While the Halton Catholic board's new policy calls on educators to enforce anti-discrimination policies, it also reiterates the church's official prohibition against sexual activity between two people of the same sex and exhorts teachers to lead "the homosexual student" toward "better sexual morality." It further suggests that "romantic attachments and behaviour" are fully expected of heterosexual couples, but discouraged among gay students.

The board recently elected its first openly gay trustee, Paul Marai, but was thrust into the international limelight after board chair Alice Anne LeMay was quoted in a national gay and lesbian newspaper, Xtra, listing gay-straight alliances alongside Nazi groups as clubs that wouldn't be allowed at Catholic schools.

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A final vote on the policy is expected at the board's next meeting in early May.

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Education reporter

Kate Hammer started her journalism career in New York, chasing crime and breaking news for The New York Times. She came to the Globe and Mail in 2008 to do much of the same and ended up investigating allegations of animal cruelty and mismanagement at the Toronto Humane Society. More

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