School board trustee steps down, citing concerns with gender diversity guidelines
A school board trustee in Eastern P.E.I. has resigned just six months after being elected.
Patty van Diepen says she's decided to step down as the Zone 7 trustee for the Morell-Souris area because the board wouldn't address concerns she heard from some parents over gender equity and diversity guidelines in schools.
"It was just always reinforced that this wasn't our role or thing to tackle as trustees," van Diepen said.
"I felt that I was just maybe viewed as disruptive at some of the meetings, trying to always bring forth these concerns of parents."
Provincial gender guidelines rolled out in schools officially more than a year ago through a directive signed by P.E.I.'s education minister.
The guidelines are aimed at ensuring schools are safe and welcoming for all students, and that their sexual orientations and gender identities — as well as those of staff — are respected.
They include a long list of best practices for schools to follow, including "reducing gender-segregated activities and gender-specific language," and "providing safe access to washroom and changing room facilities."
In a letter written before she ran to be a trustee, van Diepen shared her concerns about the guidelines.
I felt that I was just maybe viewed as disruptive at some of the meetings, trying to always bring forth these concerns of parents. - Patty van Diepen
She said that after winning November's election, other parents approached her hoping she could push for them to be reviewed.
"Parents were surprised that as an elected official, because they had put their confidence and vote in me to represent their needs, that I wasn't able to fully do that on their behalf," she said.
Guidelines 'align with the human rights code,' board chair says
Board chair Heather Mullen said given that the gender guidelines are a ministerial directive, they fall outside the jurisdiction of the board, which governs P.E.I.'s Public Schools Branch.
"It's our job to follow those minister's directives, which allows for a safe and caring work and school environment," she said.
"It's also our job to follow the human rights code of P.E.I., so those guidelines do align with the human rights code."
The 11-member board of trustees was the first one elected on P.E.I. in more than a decade.
Mullen said the board's still figuring out its roles and responsibilities, and how it can address concerns from the community.
"We were only in the beginning stages of understanding our role when it comes to the gender equity and diversity guidelines. But we were certainly doing our homework as a board to understand that," she said.
"It's important to hear the concerns from the community, and what's coming forward, but also to understand that there's other voices in the community too. So even though you might hear from four or five people that are really concerned about one issue, are they representing the whole group of students?"
'The message is pretty clear'
The resignation comes as a "relief" to the P.E.I. Transgender Network, which had raised concerns when van Diepen announced she was running to be a trustee.
"The frustration she's feeling is the inability to spread anti-trans propaganda in a system that very much impacts very vulnerable people, such as trans and 2SLGBTQ+ youth," said Lucky Fusca, the network's executive director.
"I think the message is pretty clear that it's not going to work, and hate is not tolerated here."
I think the message is pretty clear that it's not going to work, and hate is not tolerated here.
- Lucky Fusca, executive director, P.E.I. Transgender Network
Concerns over the guidelines had prompted some pushback from parents earlier this year, and a response from the Public Schools Branch.
"While a parent is able to bring an agenda item or motion forward, this does not mean it is reflective of the entire school community or its staff," the PSB said in a social media post in February.
"We will continue to strive toward creating a more diverse and inclusive community in all our schools and ensure that every student feels safe and welcomed."
Mullen said that with van Diepen out, she will represent the Morell-Souris area until a by-election is held. A date for that hasn't been set.