Column: Chilliwack school trustee should step down

Fueling fear is not encouraging dialogue

Chilliwack school trustee Barry Neufeld is entitled to his opinion.

But when that opinion conflicts so profoundly with the institution he was elected to join, it is time for him to resign.

Neufeld sparked a storm of controversy this week by branding education ministry policy on gender tolerance as “propaganda,” driven by “radical cultural nihilists.”

His comments came in a public Facebook rant that has since been taken down. The target was the ministry’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity curriculum – SOGI.

That program has been several years in the making, begun by the previous Liberal government. It’s designed to provide educators with the tools necessary to create a more tolerant and inclusive atmosphere for students to learn in. It recognizes that the traditional model of the nuclear family is at odds with reality, and that the language used in school can be hurtful to those students who don’t fit that stereotype.

It was not created in a vacuum. SOGI reflects changes to B.C.’s Human Rights Code and the fact that all public school boards must have policies in place that protect students from harassment and bullying based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

This is not about being “politically correct.” It accepts the evidence that a more tolerant and inclusive learning environment saves lives.

States B.C.’s education ministry: “Policies and procedures that explicitly reference SOGI have been proven to reduce discrimination, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts for all students.”

Not everyone is convinced, and Neufeld is not alone in his criticism. One of the most outspoken groups is “Culture Guard,” which has been organizing meetings throughout the Lower Mainland and appealing directly to “faith leaders” to “expose this evil and stand against it.”

Like Neufeld, it cites the socially conservative splinter group “American College of Pediatricians” – created to oppose adoption by gay couples – for evidence.

According to Kari Simpson, the group’s executive director, “SOGI lesson plans incorporate well-known brainwashing techniques, designed to create confusion in children, and to exploit their vulnerability.”

Not true, say program supporters. The Chilliwack Teacher’s Association and the Chilliwack School District say SOGI is not a class, but an approach that can be incorporated into any part of the school day.

Indeed, SOGI does not encourage a particular lifestyle, nor does it attempt to change anyone’s sexual orientation. It simply acknowledges that there are differences and those differences should not be the subject of insult, ridicule or violence.

“How can teaching respect and inclusion be a bad thing,” asks fellow Chilliwack trustee Dan Coulter.

Coulter wasn’t the only trustee to distance himself from Neufeld’s comments. The entire board met Tuesday evening, issuing a statement Wednesday morning reaffirming its commitment to a safe and inclusive school environment.

“The Board of Education strongly believes that its schools need to be safe and welcoming places for all students, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, race, religion or background, and that all students deserve to be welcomed, included and respected in a safe learning environment while being fully and completely themselves.”

Neufeld has since apologized to anyone offended by his comments and has called for a full review by parents and teachers before SOGI is fully implemented in Chilliwack.

Hollow words from someone whose evidence is suspect, and whose mind is clearly made up.

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