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Gay-straight alliances are greatly needed, but that does not mean Bill 24 should pass

Judy Arnall is a certified child-development specialist, parenting coach, and bestselling author.

Bill 24 will enforce secrecy when children attend Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) clubs. These are clubs attended by pupils of any sexual orientation, for social extracurricular activities at school premises under the overall supervision of teachers. The proposed Bill 24 legislation would require schools and teachers to keep secrets from parents about whether their child has joined such clubs.

At first glance, Bill 24 might not seem problematic, since sexual orientation is personal and should be kept confidential. But attendance does not automatically prove a child is a sexual or gender minority (hence the word "straight" in GSA) and would conflict fundamentally with the important parental role and with the intent of the education system.

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Presently, there are no secrets kept from parents. Alberta law requires schools to notify parents when religion and sexuality are taught in the classroom. This is consistent with Article 26 (3) of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that states that parents have a prior right to direct their child's education. The Alberta Guide to Education states that the school plays "a supportive role to parents in the areas of values and moral development." The Alberta Bill of Rights (g) states the right of parents to make "informed decisions respecting the education of their children."

Bill 24 appears to be based upon the misguided concept that a school is a haven of trust and care; while parents, on the other hand, are intolerant authoritarians ready to reject non-conforming children.

Schools are not safe havens. Parents approach me after my workshops on bullying to tell me they feel helpless because bullying persists in their children's schools despite posters, slogans, workshops, pink T-shirt days and bully-proof programs.

Peer-pressure hierarchy and bullying at school impose toxic stress upon vulnerable children, and such toxic stress damages the architecture of children's brains, causing lifelong emotional, psychological and physical health consequences.

At 5, children know their gender identity. By 10, they have an idea of their sexual orientation, and abstract thinking develops around 13. Children are not ready to make mature decisions or understand the grey areas of relationships without guidance until 17, when the prefrontal cortex begins its final development to the age of 25. Until then, parents provide "scaffolding," which is the lending of their experience and knowledge. This is essential, as it helps to have a foundation of support while the child grows into adulthood. Laws that place children under the authority of parents until the age of 18 are consistent with brain science.

Schools are not family organizations. They are responsible for academic learning, but not moral moulding, social activism or extracurricular parenting. Teachers have professional training in subject matter, curriculum delivery and classroom management. Unless they are specialized, they are not guidance counsellors nor are they trained in child development. Their role is not to parent. Their role is to impart information and develop skills.

Parents, on the other hand, are personally vested in the well-being of their children and their role is to raise their children to become responsible, moral adults.

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Parents are not perfect; nevertheless, almost all parents intend the best for their children and do a good job raising decent citizens. Teens are closer to their parents than ever before. In the rare circumstance of poor family dynamics, school staff must reach out to other resources, such as social services or police.

GSA clubs are greatly needed. They can welcome children from any orientation to participate in social activities in a safe environment. However, Bill 24 should not pass. This legislation would require teachers by law to keep secrets from parents.

Children need all avenues of support, not just the school. We could borrow a quote from La Leche League: "Don't offer and don't refuse." Teachers might not offer information to parents, but must not keep secrets or tell lies when asked by parents about their children.

However, if Bill 24 becomes law, then an alternative is to insist that GSA clubs be held at libraries, churches or other community centres – but not at schools.

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