‘Inexcusable’ quality of sex education in Nova Scotia schools

Consent, cyberbullying not being taught properly, say parents and students

A student walks into Citadel High School. Photo: Angela Crozier
A student walks into Citadel High School. Photo: Angela Crozier

Gutless. Insulting. Indifferent. All words used to describe the school system by a father who says his daughter was failed by it.

Recent discussions around sexual violence and cyberbullying in universities have prompted questions regarding the quality of sexual education in secondary schools.

Glen Canning, Rehtaeh Parsons’ father, says that schools need to start teaching proper sexual assault awareness. He says other parents have also approached the school system.

He says there’s support in schools for victims of sexual assault after the fact, but not enough preventative measures taught.

“I hate it when it’s reactionary because by then there’s a victim,” says Canning.

According to national sex education standards, students are supposed to have a good understanding of sexual assault and consent by the end of Grade 12. By Grade 8, they are expected to know the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships.

Nova Scotia schools are not putting these national standards into practice, says Canning. He says Ontario seems to have a good grasp on sex education, but Nova Scotia is lagging.

Students Nova Scotia looks for opinions on the province’s sex education curriculum Photo: Twitter
Students Nova Scotia looks for opinions on the province’s sex education curriculum. Photo: Twitter

Halifax teachers and curriculum documents say students are being taught about sexual assault and consent. Parents and students say different – and it’s being taught too late.

Canning says that after his daughter’s death, the provincial government agreed to implement lessons on consent early on in schools. He says no change was made and for him this is “heartbreaking” and “insulting.”

Rehtaeh Parsons attended Cole Harbour High School at the time of her alleged sexual assault. Photo: Emily Sollows
Rehtaeh Parsons attended Cole Harbour High School at the time of her alleged sexual assault. Photo: Emily Sollows

What do students think?

Brennan Monk, a Grade 9 student at Lockview High in Fall River, says, “From what I know we haven’t really gone over anything about sexual assault to be honest. I asked some of my friends and they said the same thing.”

Michael Long, 24, a former student of Citadel High, says he was taught nothing about sexual assault but “it’s something that needs to be taught early on, that it’s not cool.”

Canning says, “15,16,17-year-olds have no idea what consent means, not a clue. That’s completely inexcusable. That’s unforgivable to victims.”

According to the Government of Canada, the legal definition of consent is “the voluntary agreement of the complainant to engage in the sexual activity in question.”

Jen Saunders, Brennan’s mother, says teaching about consent and cyberbullying “would be great. … I went over these things even when they were very little, but that doesn’t always happen.”

However, Saunders says it might be awkward for some parents to talk to their kids at a young age about what sexual assault looks like and how to prevent it from happening.

She says teaching about sexual assault “probably couldn’t happen because it’s such a sensitive subject for them to bring into elementary or even junior high … I would say that it would be good if it could, but I can’t ever see it happening.”

“Right now it does fall on the parents. Parents find it difficult, it’s a hard subject to talk about.”

How does the school respond?

Paul Ingram, a guidance counsellor and former PDR teacher at Eric Graves Memorial Junior High in Dartmouth, says Grade 7 students are taught about relationships and sexual abuse.

The Department of Education could not be reached for comment.

‘What’s the effect of alcohol on consent and what are the real situations where there is an actual consent as opposed to mere silence?’ law professor Wayne MacKay says of his report on how to prevent sexual violence at SMU. Photo: Angela Crozier
‘What’s the effect of alcohol on consent and what are the real situations where there is an actual consent as opposed to mere silence?’ law professor Wayne MacKay says of his report on how to prevent sexual violence at SMU. Photo: Angela Crozier

Consent

Canning says his daughter’s friend who was present during the alleged rape did not understand consent and believed Rehtaeh was not raped because she wasn’t “screaming and fighting.”

Wayne MacKay, human rights lawyer and chairman of the Nova Scotia Task Force on Bullying and Cyberbullying, says he found similar results in other young peoples’ understanding of consent. He led a report on how to prevent sexual violence at Saint Mary’s University after the 2013 case in which orientation leaders chanted about non-consensual sex with minors.

“The issue of consent is front and centre and a big issue in any sexual assault case. We found in the Saint Mary’s chant study it was really not well understood at all. … I think there’s definitely an important role or part in the curriculum dealing with issues of sexual assault, proper sexual relationships and consent,” he says.

There are concerns that even at the university level, young adults do not fully understand consent.

At a recent “Sexualized violence on our campuses” panel, Dr. Marnina Gonick, professor of education and women’s studies at Mount Saint Vincent University, said, “School systems have really just closed the door on discussions with young people about sex and sexuality.”

Gonick says it’s not about healthy sexuality, but “I think it’s about a question of consent. I think that’s what we need to be talking about.”

MacKay acknowledges that explaining consent to children is not an easy task. “It’s a fairly complex topic in one sense, in another sense it’s fairly obvious.”

Lockview student Brennan Monk says, “we went over consent last year in Grade 8, but we didn’t stay on that topic for very long. … They actually never defined what consent was. They just told us that you needed consent.”

Canning says issues of consent, victim blaming, respect and believing should be taught. He thinks students should also be taught what it looks like not to have consent, as difficult as that might be.

Glen Canning’s daughter, Rehtaeh Parsons. Photo: Wikipedia
Glen Canning’s daughter, Rehtaeh Parsons. Photo: Wikipedia

Cyberbullying

Francoise Baylis, one of four Dalhousie professors who filed a complaint with the school regarding Dalhousie Dentistry, said in the “Sexualized violence on our campuses” panel last Thursday that social media “allows people to stand behind some kind of barrier or veil or think that they can be disconnected from the things they say and/or do.”

MacKay says there is a recent federal law making it illegal to send intimate images without consent. “Doing these things online can be as problematic as doing them in real life,” he says.

He and Canning agree that students need to learn the consequences of sharing sexually explicit photos in junior high.

MacKay says the unofficial response from the cyberbullying task force and SMU report was “not much is being done, if anything. That sex ed doesn’t really address these kinds of questions.”

When asked if he thinks proper sexual assault awareness would have made a difference in Rehtaeh’s death, Canning says, “Oh yeah, absolutely I do.”

“If this was really taught well and ingrained really well from a younger age from before this happened to Rehtaeh, maybe someone in that house would have (seen) this and said, ‘Wait a sec…’  and stopped it. I would like to think that would be the case if we had only had that kind of education going on here.”