More than 1,000 students — including nearly half of one elementary school’s population — were absent from classes in one Winnipeg school district Wednesday as misinformation spread online about its teachers distributing graphic sexual content.

Superintendent Brian O’Leary said “false and malicious fearmongering” on social media prompted hundreds of families in the Seven Oaks School Division to keep their elementary-aged children home from classes Sept. 20.

“We had a lot of information circulating on social media, particularly within the South Asian community, telling parents that the schools were planning to hand out books with graphic sexual material to all students,” O’Leary said Thursday.

Punjabi, Hindi and Arabic posts, which the school division leader said appear to have been “deliberately concocted to scare parents,” were circulating on Facebook.

About 50 per cent of students enrolled at Arthur E. Wright Community School did not show up Wednesday. The absenteeism rate dropped to five per cent Thursday.

The abnormal attendance levels were recorded on the same day as the “1MillionMarch4Children” — a protest organized by a conservative group that is “against gender ideology” and claims schools are sharing “sexually explicit content” with students — played out across the country.

Hundreds of protesters showed up to the Manitoba Legislative Building on Wednesday to call for increased parental rights in public schools. A counter-protest, organized by LGBTTQ+ advocates and allies, took place at the same time.

Multilingual school staff flagged online disinformation being spread among Seven Oaks families Wednesday.

“Let’s fight for our kids better future no SOGI (sexual orientation gender identity) in kids school. Please share,” one Winnipeg-based user wrote in a post to the “Punjabi World” Facebook group over the weekend.

“If you can, try to keep your kids home no school on 20 September, if you against SOGI.”

The president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society was surprised to learn so many people appear to have been convinced teachers planned to suddenly expose children to explicit and inappropriate information.

“We do not blame their parents, but we do blame anyone that would start rumours that teachers are out to harm students in any way, ever,” union leader Nathan Martindale said in a statement. “Because nothing could be further from the truth.”

Martindale noted a teacher’s first obligation, per the code of professional practice, is to protect student safety.

Educators want the best for all learners and will never be onside with homophobic or transphobic hate, he added.

In response to this week’s social media activity and absenteeism, Seven Oaks administration issued notices to parents and guardians bearing the phrase, “We missed your child today!” in large, bold font.

“We are concerned that misinformation is penetrating our communities and may be causing unrest and fear among the public,” state the letters, which were printed in multiple languages.

The documents indicate the division is focused on safety, inclusion and human rights for all. They also reassure families local schools are teaching the curriculum created by Manitoba Education.

The provincial education department deems personal safety, substance use and abuse, and human sexuality as “potentially sensitive topics” in its syllabus materials.

Teachers have to inform families about when these subjects are going to be discussed and parents may decide to pull their children from formal classes.

“Parents have the right to opt for alternative delivery (e.g., home, professional counselling) for their child where the content is in conflict with family, religious, and/or cultural values,” per provincial policies.

Curricular documents indicate kindergartners are expected to learn how to identify parts of the body by their appropriate names, ranging from toes to breasts, and understand people have a right to privacy.

Grade 2 students in Manitoba learn about how teeth, height and bodies in general change when people grow up and how living things produce offspring and care for their young.

By Grade 5, children are taught about the basics of puberty.

The Grade 7 syllabus seeks to teach “the importance of sexual abstinence as a responsible decision for the adolescent male and female,” as well as information about sexually transmitted infections and social influences on gender roles.

“Our membership is highly professional, and we have many years of training and expertise in using age-appropriate content for every subject we teach,” Martindale said Thursday.

Seven Oaks has a specific policy on creating a “safe, positive and respectful” learning environment for LGBTTQ+ students and staff members.

The policy encourages local schools to facilitate gender and sexuality alliances, gay-straight alliances (GSAs) and other related clubs.

By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Sep 21, 2023 at 20:58

This item reprinted with permission from   Free Press   Winnipeg, Manitoba
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