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Sask. school boards request pause on 'sudden' pronoun policy change

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Saskatchewan's school boards are collectively asking the provincial government for a "reasonable pause" before a new policy regarding gender pronouns is rolled out.

On Tuesday, Saskatchewan's education minister Dustin Duncan announced policy changes requiring students under 16 to seek parental consent to change preferred names or pronouns at school.

Lisa Broda, the Saskatchewan Advocate for Children and Youth announced an immediate review of the changes the following day. In a news release, Broda said the potential impact of the new policy is "deeply troubling."

In a letter to Duncan, shared on social media by NDP education critic Matt Love, Saskatchewan School Boards Association president Jamie Smith-Windsor said such a pause "will allow for a complete review and report" from Broda before school boards implement the changes.

"Boards of education would not be doing their due diligence from both a legal and human rights perspective, serving the students of this province, unless we have assurance that these sudden policy changes and directives are not putting young people in harm's way and are not contrary to their human rights," Smith-Windsor said.

A similar review was recently completed by New Brunswick's youth advocate. Earlier this year, the provincial government there introduced rules limiting the use of preferred names or pronouns by gender-diverse youth under the age of 16.

Following the review, New Brunswick's child advocate said the policy violated the Charter rights of children.

"I think it's an unfortunate that we're moving towards a place where there there's openings for political ideology to enter into decision making an education," Smith-Windsor told CTV News.

"I think (school) boards play a really important role in safeguarding our education system from those kinds of those kinds of interests. School boards are nonpartisan, and they are elected and they're accountable to the public through their elected roles," she said.

"And in that nonpartisan role as elected officials, [the boards] think it's important that we consider the purpose of policy and and how it's done. I think this has caused school boards to reflect on that role a little bit. The other thing I would say is, I think, missing from this conversation is an opportunity for students to share their views and that should have been contemplated in the development of these policies right from the get-go."

Smith-Windsor said the school boards' association also plans to consult the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission regarding the policy changes.

When announcing the change on Tuesday, Duncan compared seeking parental consent before allowing a student to switch pronouns or change their names with seeking permission for a field trip.

“If we are requiring school divisions to get parental consent to go to a half-day field trip to the science center, then I think we need to be treating this issue with the same amount of seriousness," Duncan said during a news conference.

A Government of Saskatchewan statement sent in response to a CTV News inquiry on Friday did not directly address the request by the school boards' association.

"These changes were made following a review of sexual health materials and policies across all Saskatchewan school divisions," the statement said.

"The Ministry of Education will continue to work with our school division partners to improve the mental health and well-being of students across Saskatchewan."

Advocates who work with trans and gender-diverse youth in the province say the policy shift could pose safety risks.

"We know in this field is that the protections that are provided to trans youth in school are often life-saving, and it is often the only safe place that queer and trans youth have," Saskatoon Sexual Health director Caitlin Cottrel told CTV News.

She said that trans youth "experiencing negativity [such as] verbal, emotional and physical abuse at home as a response to their identity" are at greater risk of suicide, substance abuse and mental health issues as well as homelessness.

Another policy change announced by Duncan on Tuesday will require schools to share sexual health education materials with parents and caregivers. Under the new rules, parents and caregivers can opt their kids out of sex-ed.

The policy changes come after the upstart Saskatchewan United Party posted a strong showing in a byelection held in the constituency of Lumsden-Morse earlier this month.

Sask. United's campaign mainly focused on a Planned Parenthood sexual health resource that was provided to Grade 9 students in the town of Lumsden.

Duncan also said the government would temporarily restrict third-party groups from presenting sexual health education in schools.

The head of the Regina Sexual Assault Centre said its planned programming was cancelled after the announcement, despite the fact that its material is age-appropriate and is more focused on sexual assault prevention and safety.

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