Day schools coy on new Ontario sex ed curriculum

Eric Petersiel

TORONTO — Toronto Jewish day schools are mostly  tight-lipped when it comes to discussing Ontario’s proposed sex education curriculum or their own teachings on the subject.

Many elementary schools contacted by The CJN did not return calls or emails seeking comment on the new Ontario health curriculum or what, to date, has been taught on the subject of human reproduction.

Starting next fall, Ontario’s revamped sex education curriculum will see children as young as six learn about sexual consent, while eight-year-olds will be taught about same-sex relationships.

The course of instruction has met with a flurry of controversy and opposition, mainly from parents who say they don’t want their children exposed to such candid sexual issues at a young age.

For example, students in Grade 1 will learn to identify body parts, including genitalia, “using correct terminology.”

Other changes will see students in Grade 2 learn about stages of development and bodily changes, while same-sex relationships will be explored in Grade 3.

Students in Grade 6 will learn about masturbation and “gender expression,” while kids in Grades 7 and 8 will discuss contraception, anal and oral sex, preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.

Claire Sumerlus, head of school at Robbins Hebrew Academy, told The CJN: “At this point, we are reviewing [the new curriculum]. We’re just working through what we’re going to do.” She declined further comment.

Netivot HaTorah Day School does not teach the entire Ontario health curriculum, said Rabbi Elliott Diamond, head of Jewish studies at Netivot. “While our school strives to implement the ministry’s guidelines in the areas of core curriculum, we have chosen not to implement the health curriculum in its entirety. We feel that elements of the program – specifically the sex education sections – reflect a position that is not supported by our parent body and our religious perspective,” he said in a written statement

“We feel that education toward a healthy, meaningful and religiously sanctioned attitude toward sexuality is indeed appropriate, but that these lessons are best learned when students are older. Our middle school program does address some issues of the physical and emotional developments that teenagers experience and tries to provide students with the knowledge and strategies that will serve them as they grow and develop,” Rabbi Diamond said.

Eric Petersiel, head of school at Leo Baeck Day School, said the school follows Ministry of Education guidelines, including those that deal with sex education.

“We rely on province of Ontario experts to identify appropriate areas” to teach the children, he said, adding that Leo Baeck follows the current curriculum and will follow the new one as well.

The school, which is affiliated with the Reform movement, “teaches children to be proud Jews deeply engaged in the modern world. We would never choose to shy away from those elements of modern education as they are presented in the public schools,” Petersiel said.

Leo Baeck contracts with Jewish Family & Child (JF&CS) to bring in social workers who address issues such as drugs and sex education at the appropriate time. Police officers address students on questions of Internet sex safety, he said.

Currently, sex ed starts in Grade 5 and is part of the physical education curriculum. One hour a week for an eight-week period is devoted to it.

“If you wait until the seventh grade to discuss the dangers of posting a sexual picture of yourself, you’re way too late,” he added.

Irrespective of where they stand on the issue, the controversial new sex education program appears to have little relevance for most of the community’s day schools, since they, like all private schools in the province, are not obliged to follow the provincial curriculum in elementary grades.

All private schools, secular or religious, must follow the approved Ontario curriculum only if they grant high school diplomas, and there are actually separate curricula planned for the two age ranges. Elementary grades may follow the curriculum voluntarily.

Jonathan Levy, principal at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto’s Kimel campus, said his school will follow the curriculum.

“Tanenbaum CHAT teaches according to ministry guidelines. [The curriculum] will be implemented as of September. Our teachers are currently working on it.”

He added: “We are an accredited high school that follows ministry curricula. We represent the broadest range of the Jewish community, a diverse range of opinion is accepted in our school as long as [it’s] presented in a respectful and caring environment. As a high school we have a responsibility in this day and age to high schoolers and the issues that high school students face today.”

He said TanenbaumCHAT parents have so far not expressed any concerns about the new curriculum.

“I think we need to wait and see how it rolls out and make sure as with all our courses and issues, that we address things in a caring and nurturing way.”

Educators at Yeshivat Or Chaim, an Orthodox high school for boys,  and Ulpanat Orot, its counterpart for girls, are still discussing the issue, said Mordechai Sabeti, director of education at Bnei Akiva Schools of Toronto.

“We have not as of yet fully analyzed the curriculum… and had enough meaningful discussions internally to comment, but we will certainly be focused on this in the months ahead.”

The provincial sex education curriculum was last updated in 1998.

The Liberal government backed away from an attempted update of it in 2010 after protests by some religious leaders, including prominent evangelical Christian Rev. Charles McVety.

At the time, “we met with other groups who were opposed to it to plan strategy,” said Rabbi Asher Vale, director of the Beis Din, Vaad Harabonim of Toronto.

“We need to bring it up again to the Vaad,” he added.

Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, president of the Toronto Board of Rabbis, said the board “has not yet considered” whether to pronounce on the new curriculum.

Benjamin Cohen, principal at Bialik Hebrew Day School’s Viewmount branch, had no comment when contacted by The CJN. Messages to Bialik’s head of school were not returned.

Neither were calls and emails to Associated Hebrew Schools, the Toronto Heschel School, and Eitz Chaim Schools seeking comment on the sex ed curriculum or to discuss their teachings in the area. 

With files from Paul Lungen.