The Far North Christian school that’s closing its doors because it refuses to implement the Government’s national health and sexuality curriculum has copped criticism for not supporting its young students.
Kaitāia Abundant Life School confirmed it is “exiting from the state system” from Term 2, citing “statutory constraints preventing it from operating within its special character and constitution”.
A former parent told the Northern Advocate the closure was because the school was “unwilling to implement the national health and sexuality curriculum” because it conflicts with what they say are their “Christian values”.
Though the state-integrated school already had a sex education programme, it didn’t want to implement new changes which centred around “gender identity”, for example the provision of unisex toilets, he said.
Otago University College of Education professor Karen Nairn, who specialises in gender, sexuality, race and cultures of schooling, said shutting the school for the alleged reasons “sends a terrible message to any gender-diverse young person in the school”.
“The school needs to acknowledge and validate young people’s identity... whether it’s culture or gender identity. It’s important every aspect gets recognised in their education environment,” Nairn said.
But school trust chairperson Ivy Tan told the Advocate the school signed an “integration agreement” with the Ministry of Education in 1996 on the understanding that it would operate under its special character.
“We are no longer able to operate within it with our Christian faith and beliefs of our church,” she said.
The Government’s “constraints” include “requesting us to look at teaching things that aren’t Bible-based”, Tan said.
“We’re not comfortable with allowing an 18-year-old boy who’s uncomfortable with his sexuality to share toilets with 5-year-old girls. That’s the kind of set-up the Government is wanting us to do.
“To continue under what the Government is now imposing on us and the agenda they have going is in total conflict with our beliefs.”
Tan said she “has plans” to open another school.
“I believe our mandate hasn’t changed; we’re looking at different ways we can offer a Christian operation aside from Government funding.
“It’ll be a bit of an extra challenge but we’ll walk towards it because the wellbeing of our students is our top priority.
“We can no longer operate as a Christian school. That’s sad for all of us. I feel for our whole school community. This isn’t a light decision we’ve made.”
Nairn said research shows gender-diverse young people “don’t have a lot of content or acknowledgement of their gender diversity and this has an impact on their mental health”.
She praised the Ministry of Health’s curriculum which recognises gender diversity, along with body development and image, human reproduction, different types of relationships and cultural approaches to gender and sexuality.
“It’s important all schools in the country include content about it,” Nairn said.
“All schools need to be part of it, it seems really drastic to close down a school which doesn’t want to comply. It seems very un-Christian.”
Ministry of Education Te Tai Raro northern leader Isabel Evans said the ministry has “had discussions with the proprietor and have agreed to progress the process for cancellation of the integration agreement by mutual agreement”.
“The proprietor believes there is a conflict between the legislation, policy and curriculum initiatives, and the beliefs which form the basis of the special character of the school,” Evans said.
“Should this be approved the proprietor will then close the school.
“We’ll work with the proprietor to determine the details of the timeframe for the closure of the school. We will also work with the board to help support staff and students through this process and to ensure students transition successfully to other schools following the closure.
“The minister has the final decision to end the agreement, after consultation.”
Bald Angels founder Terese Wickbom, who runs Rainbow Rangatahi, an initiative set up to give young people in the Far North’s Rainbow community a place they feel safe and celebrated, said everyone has the right to be loved.
“It’s all about supporting our young people to live their best lives and be authentically who they are,” Wickbom said.
“That’s the only way they’ll live a healthy, happy, comfortable life.”
Wickbom said she recently spoke to a local kaumatua, who is a bible scholar, about the topic.
“He says regardless of how we personally feel, it’s clear in the Bible everyone is loved.
“And so that is the beginning and the end of it. I agree with him.
“Surely the teachings of Jesus are that everybody should be loved regardless.
“It’s up to the organisation to choose how they want to run their organisation - maybe they have a different understanding of the Bible.”
Shaneel Lal, a Fijian-New Zealand LGBT rights activist known for spearheading the movement to ban conversion therapy in New Zealand, said schools must be a “safe space for all children”.
“Shutting down a school, instead of accepting change and adapting to it, is sending a harmful message to all young people,” Lal said.
“It sends a message of intolerance to young people.”
Otago University Professor Alex Gunn, who specialises in gender and sexuality issues in education, said “ignoring these topics won’t make them disappear”.
“It just denies families and teachers an opportunity to introduce and discuss them with their children in a context of family and school values that offer a particular lens for making sense of them,” Gunn said.
“Even if topics like gender diversity, relationships, and sexuality are excluded from the formally-taught curriculum, students live in worlds where gender happens divergently, where people need to learn about healthy, positive, and respectful relationships so that the consent issues we’ve seen being championed by youth are addressed.”
In February the school closed its doors to senior students following “inadequate teacher numbers”.
Around 56 Year 11-13 students were left high and dry following the decision to keep the senior school closed as 16 teaching positions were unfilled.
At the time, the school’s board of trustees chairwoman Karena Hita said the board was “fully committed to resolving the senior level gap as quickly as possible”.
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