Tri-Region students walkout to protest UCP plans for GSA's

They demonstrated against the United Conservative Party and their intent to change the laws surrounding gay-straight alliances in public and private schools in Alberta as well as changes to curricula.

Spruce Grove Composite High School students walk out of class during a province-wide student demonstration protesting proposed changes to the School Act and GSA legislation on Friday, May 3, 2019. Josh Aldrich/Reporter/Examiner

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More than 200 students in the Tri-Region have formed one unified voice with students across Alberta to protest proposed changes to Bill-24 and the School Act.

Students walked out of classes at 9:30 a.m. for 20 minutes Friday. They demonstrated against the United Conservative Party and their intent to change the laws surrounding gay-straight alliances in public and private schools in Alberta as well as changes to curricula.

Students at Memorial Composite High School in Stony Plain, Spruce Grove Composite High School and across the province stood outside in cold and snowy weather. They waved signs, flags and chanted against changes.

“The reason behind these protests from students across Alberta was because we felt that we were under assault from the UCP,” Grade 12 SGCHS student Jerri Biggar said. “The crux of the movement is to use our voice to flex our political muscle so that the UCP could hear our concerns as the rights of association and privacy are under threat by their claims.”

Premier Jason Kenney and his government have indicated they want to replace the School Act with the Education Act. This legislation was developed in 2012 and would remove some privacy for students who attend GSA meetings as well as remove requirements for inclusive LGBTQ2 policy in private schools. Kenney also said he did not want mandatory notification of a child joining a GSA sent to parents at all.

He instead said during the campaign he wanted teachers to decide on whether a parent is notified if a child joins a GSA at their school. But for Biggar, changing what her peers are happy with does not make sense.

“What is impeding on our rights as an individual going to do?” she asked. “We are people and we are human, we are no different than anyone else. To Jason Kenney … my question to him and his party … what are his actions going to do to further our province in four years? I hope Alberta sees we are not just a minority.”

Reporter/Examiner staff were asked to leave school properties during the protests and, online, many had harsh words for the students who came out. One poster called for any teachers who encouraged protest to be disciplined and said that all the kids who left should be reprimanded. Biggar says they initially were going to face sanctions, but school administration backed down.

“There definitely has been discipline threatened,” Biggar said. “We would get suspensions and lose our right to go to grad. But within one day, 40 of us banded together into the principal’s office and we told her we wanted change and we got our change. It is a big deal, but you know what? At the end it is worth it.”

When asked about the alleged threats, Parkland School Division director of strategic planning and communications Jordi Weidman said they were not accurate. He then pointed to a statement from district superintendent Shauna Boyce that expressed a middle ground on the issue.

“No students will be disciplined just for attending the protest,” Boyce’s statement reads. “However, they will be treated the same way we would for any absence. Students would be responsible for any missed work or assignments. In Parkland School Division, we value citizenship. The division and our schools remain neutral on the subject.”

Kenney and newly appointed Minister of Education Adriana LaGrange have said students will still have strong protections in the wake of the protests which saw thousands turn out and that they will listen to concerns.

Spruce Grove-Stony Plain MLA Searle Turton echoed this sentiment last week. He pledged to hear voices of the concerned.

“We do support safe and inclusive areas where our kids can gather,” he said. “I look forward to having a lot of conversations over the next couple of months to ensure that policies are put in place so kids feel safe and protected in our schools.”

Biggar remains skeptical.

“If they wanted to protect us, why wouldn’t they just state that they will not remove or alter [the law] in any way possible?” Biggar asked. “After hearing our protest, I would hope that they protect us in full. As for the local MLA, I think it is wonderful that they do support this in our area. I would hope he uses his voice to help protect us in the future.”