Q&A: Education Minister Liz Sandals on getting the new sex ed curriculum past a mob of angry parents

Q&A: Education Minister Liz Sandals on getting the new sex ed curriculum past a mob of angry parents

In September, under your new curriculum, students will learn about anal and oral sex starting in Grade 7. Why is that the appropriate age?
Because Public Health data shows that 22 per cent of Grade 9 and 10 students have had intercourse. And while teen pregnancy is down, chlamydia is way up—by about 81 per cent since 2002. The takeaway is clear: kids are having oral or anal sex because there’s no risk of pregnancy, but they haven’t realized their exposure to STIs. The curriculum addresses that issue before it’s too late.

Does it shock you that 22 per cent of ninth and 10th graders have had sex?
I don’t like it, but based on much of the popular culture kids consume, it’s not surprising. More disturbing are the misogynistic and violent relationships often portrayed on the Internet and TV. The curriculum focuses on healthy relationships, abstinence and no means no.

Is it reasonable to worry that a Grade 7 student will hear his or her teacher talking about anal sex and think, “Well, high time I started having anal sex!”
No. In fact, WHO data shows that when kids receive proper information before they have to make a decision, they tend to make better decisions.

Parents like to think of their teens as precious angels rather than the randy little sexters they often are. Is that part of why the reaction to the curriculum has been so intense?
Haha. Probably, and I think it has always been thus. What’s astounding is that the age of puberty has been going down. My kids, Richard and Allison, learned about puberty in Grade 6. A decade later, it was taught in Grade 5. Now, it’ll be Grade 4. Some don’t get that, particularly many grandparents. I know because they’ve been in touch.

There’s been strident opposition to your curriculum. What’s the wildest distortion you’ve seen? I saw a protestor ­carrying a sign saying “What’s Next, Safe Animal Sex?”
I saw that one, too. I think if you’re going to protest something, you have more impact if you are calm and reasonable and make suggestions based on fact.

You grew up in Guelph, the daughter of a nurse and the dean of physical science at the University of Guelph. Do you remember “the talk”?
It was probably delivered by Mum. As a nurse, she was used to that sort of straightforward talk. And I had the same sort of talk with my kids: straightforward.

On to other contentious matters! You’re the authority on Toronto schools. How do you explain the burning pile of nonsense that continues to smoulder away at the TDSB?
I’m not sure I have a good explanation. The “culture of fear” plays a role, but I also think the board never jelled after amalgamation in 1998.

You instructed two different TDSB chairs to roll back Donna Quan’s salary. Neither of them did. One of them even voted for Quan to keep the overpayment of $17,000. At what point do you decide that the TDSB doesn’t understand its mandate and place it under supervision?
That may be something I do, but the problems are so deeply embedded in the culture that we need to look at structural changes at the board—which is why I’ve appointed a review panel—and at administrative levels, too.

When did you and Quan last talk?
Not recently. Though in fairness, I don’t regularly meet with the TDSB director.

Can you say something nice about her?
When she was appointed, she was respected as an academic leader within the board.

Between sex ed and the TDSB, you’ve got two hot potatoes on your desk. Do you hightail it back to Guelph whenever you get a chance?
I usually head home on Thursday nights, and I come back on Sunday—I rent a little condo on Bay Street. But I get recognized in Guelph too much, so to relax I have to leave town and go to our family cottage in Muskoka.

Does your husband, David, come back and forth with you to Toronto?
Oh no, he’s a large-animal vet, working mostly with cattle. Downtown Toronto is not his idea of a good place to be. It’s a bit stressful.

And what’s your stress-o-meter at these days?
On a scale of one to 10, I tick along at a five. I’ve been kicking around education for a long time, so when it comes to stressful situations I think, “Oh well, this too will pass.” I come by my white hair naturally.