June 19, 2024

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Sask. government’s decision to limit sexual health education leaves students unprepared: educators

4 min read

Professionals who are trained to teach young people about appropriate relationships and sexual health say the Saskatchewan government is setting youth up for failure by banning organizations from partnering with local schools and teachers in the classroom.

In August, the government issued a “temporary directive” that banned third-party educators from presenting on sexual health education. Four months later, the ban remains and there’s no indication it will be lifted.

“The temporary directive is still in effect and continues to be reviewed,” said Mitchell Blair, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Education, in a statement to CBC.

Educators fear the government’s decision will result in higher provincial rates of sexual violence, unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections or disease.

“There’s so much research and evidence that shows that consent-based education is imperative to lowering rates of sexualized violence,” said Morgan Price, the education and outreach co-ordinator at the Saskatoon Sexual Assault and Information Centre (SSAIC), which is now banned from working in schools. 

“Saskatchewan has some of the highest rates of sexualized violence, particularly in youth, so of course it’s devastating.”

This would have been SSAIC’s 18th year partnered with Saskatoon’s public and Catholic school divisions to run programs for teachers and students.

For 2023, SSAIC projected it would reach 3,850 Grade 7 and 8 students with its “No is a Full Sentence” program.

“No is a Full Sentence” is a sexual-violence education and prevention program aimed at youth in Grade 8. It involves lesson plans for teachers about consent, boundaries and healthy relationships, as well as a SSAIC presentation.

“Since we’re the experts on sexualized-violence, we [used to] come in and give that guest presentation,” Price said.

Instead, SSAIC only reached 258 youth in 2023 through community sessions offered outside of school hours.   

Price said it’s a good thing that SSAIC is still reaching some young people in the community and has also been able to host education sessions for caregivers. But Price said it is disappointing the reach is so limited. She said the youth whose parents bring them to their sessions are most likely not the youth who need to hear their message.

For example, sexually abusive caregivers likely won’t bring their kids to a session about preventing violence, so those children may never learn that what’s happening to them is wrong.

Price said SSAIC won’t stop advocating to get back into Saskatchewan classrooms.

“We have quite an extensive backing of why this kind of education is necessary. It’s life-saving. It’s affirming. It’s preventative.”

Negative trends likely to worsen: executive director 

Saskatchewan doesn’t just lead the nation among provinces for sexualized and gender-based violence. The province is leading in many other negative outcomes that can be prevented with comprehensive sexual health education, said Caitlin Cottrell, executive director of the Saskatoon Sexual Health Centre (SSHC).  

“We have the highest rates of HIV per capita, the highest rates of hepatitis C. We have the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the country.”

Before the ban, the organization worked with teachers to provide in-classroom, age-appropriate education. Cottrell said contrary to misinformation or conspiracy theories, the educators don’t teach students how to have sex or encourage them to do so.

But SSHC educators are aware that young people do engage in relationships and sexual activity, so they would talk about how to do that safely and what to look out for. The information provided comes from experts, and is evidence-based and peer-reviewed, Cottrell said.

“The government is creating a situation where students are actively unprepared.” 

Cottrell said lessons are age-appropriate and curriculum-adjacent, and start with a focus on consent, boundary violations and healthy relationships. As students age, lessons can involve menstruation, birth control methods, reproduction and how to prevent sexually-transmitted disease or pregnancy.

“A lack of education, lack of access around consent and boundaries and healthy relationships is going to lead to more sexual assault,” Cottrell said. “Lack of education, lack of access [to education] is going to mean more teenage pregnancies … more cases of syphilis.”

Cottrell said this is particularly concerning given Saskatchewan’s negative trends. She said there was a 1,700 per cent increase in cases of infectious syphilis from 2017 to 2022 — jumping from eight cases per 100,000 people to 1,940 cases per 100,000 by 2021.

“The national average of HIV is 4.5 cases per 100,000. In Saskatchewan, we’re at 20.3 cases per 100,000, so almost four times the national average, and in Saskatoon, we are the national hotspot at 160 cases of HIV per 100,000,” she said. 

Many colourful condoms in packages
Caitlin Cottrell fears Saskatchewan’s rates of sexually transmitted disease and infections will continue to skyrocket as fewer young people are taught about prevention. (Shutterstock)

Cottrell said the SSHC has been advocating to the provincial government about lifting its ban on third-party educators, but the province isn’t listening.

Like the SSAIC, Cottrell said her organization is still trying to do what it can by providing education to teachers and other community members.

In these conversations, Cottrell said SSHC is hearing widespread concern about the ripple effects of the government’s new rules.

“[There is] a fear that we’re regressing and that we’re putting back into the closet a lot of these conversations that really need to be had.”

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