Public schools shouldn't stifle free expression

Catholic school students suspended for pro-choice message

It seems the crackdown on dissenting ideology continues at Catholic high schools in Ontario. Two months ago, the Halton board made headlines for banning gay-straight alliances in its publicly funded schools. Now, St. Patrick High School in Thunder Bay, Ontario, has decided that its students cannot express pro-choice opinions. Because the best type of public education is an exclusionary and highly ideological public education, right?

Grade 10 student Alexandria Szeglet was sent home from school last week for wearing a green strip of tape with the word “Choice” on her uniform. That day, the school was holding a pro-life event where some students wore red pieces of tape with the word “Life” written on them. As Szeglet began handing out her green strips to fellow students, she was told to remove the tape or go home. Smartly, she chose the latter.

Still, other students carried on the message, and according to reports, as many as 100 students were sent home. John de Faveri, Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board director disputed those numbers, while still adding, “On the issue, pro-life is part of the Catholic stand. The pro-choice students were not appropriate in the context of a Catholic school.”

As the news of the incident spread, the school board’s position seemed to shift.

“It wasn’t anything about what the students were trying to say; it was the inappropriate way they went about it,” de Faveri told the Globe and Mail. “They didn’t get approval from the school. They didn’t do anything of the sort.”

Pardon my lack of faith, but when the issue of gay-straight alliances came to the Halton Catholic board, chair Alice Anne LeMay said that students would be denied a request for a GSA even if they sought approval from the school. “It’s not in accordance with the teachings of the church,” she said.

Similarly, I’m skeptical that Szeglet and her friends would have been permitted to express their pro-choice positions, even if they had asked permission from the school beforehand. Let’s not kid ourselves; the issue is not that these students defiantly defaced their uniforms with strips of illicit green material without permission, it’s that they expressed a position fundamentally opposed to the teachings of the church.

The bitsy snag is here is that St. Patrick is a public school, funded by public dollars. Yet somehow, administrators feel compelled to stifle free expression. I don’t think I need to explain the dissonance here.

It’s bad enough that taxpayers in Ontario are footing the bill for only one type of religious education (when really, they should be funding none), but it becomes intolerable when that education is restrictive and exclusionary. Disallowing students to form positive alliances or express their opinions openly exemplifies just that.  At an age where students should be encouraged to think critically, schools shouldn’t be the ones to shut down the debate.

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