Sunday 13 March 2011

Catholic school disciplines pro-choice student

Picture courtesy of Jodi Lundmark, TBNewsWatch
The port city of Thunder Bay, Ontario, population 110,000, sitting at the top of the Great Lakes system on Lake Superior, would not be, at first glance, a hotbed of civil disobedience. However, on Thursday, March 10, 2011, Alexandria Szeglet, a 15 year old Grade 10 student at St. Patrick High School, found herself embroiled in a controversy over a strip of green tape with the word "choice" written on it. The Thunder Bay Source, a local weekly newspaper in the city tells the story.

Several years ago, another student, Alexandra Calnan, started a pro-life student group at this Catholic high school. This 19 year old is now a student at Lakehead University having graduated from high school in 2009. Every year, this group organises an event, a "Day of Silent Solidarity" at the high school during which students wear a red piece of tape with the word "life" written on it and do not talk for a full day to display their belief in the injustice of abortion. This event raises money to support the group's activities which include attending right-to-life events and the group’s Project Mommy, which furnishes care packages to young mothers at the school.

Szeglet, apparently wanting to state her disagreement with the anti-abortionists, showed up at school with about 25 pieces of green tape with the word "choice" written on it which she distributed to fellow students. She was subsequently told to take off the tape or go to the school office. The office said that what she was doing was not an approved scheduled event and as such, she had to remove the tape. She refused and was sent home.

At this point, the story becomes somewhat unclear but it seems other students followed this act of defiance. A representative of the school board has said 15 students were sent home and two or three were given two-day suspensions but the local weekly newspaper, the Thunder Bay Source, has written that calls to its newsroom were claiming that as many as 35 were given two-day suspensions and another hundred were sent home.

The Source quoted John De Faveri, Director of Education of the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board, as saying that "the students who were sent home for the day were not removed from school for wearing the sticker, but for not taking it off." Supposedly, students who were issued two-day suspensions after they refused to remove the stickers and swore at school staff. "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."

The Source went on to report de Faveri as explaining that the school has a process for the approval of any student initiatives, including the alteration of the school uniform or an event. The pro-life group had apparently gone through this process and did receive approval for both their Day for Silent Solidarity and the wearing of the red tape with the word "life" written on it, but de Faveri could not say whether the green-tape initiative would have also been approved. He did underline, however, that while opposing views are accepted, there is a process. The school does have a code of conduct and students must comply with authority.

Media Coverage
Thunder Bay's weekly newspaper The Thunder Bay Source published two articles on this incident and The National Post picked it up. However, Thunder Bay's daily newspaper The Chronicle Journal was silent on this issue.

The Thunder Bay Source - Mar 10/2011
Students sent home By Jodi Lundmark

The Thunder Bay Source - Mar 11/2011
Pro-life Support By Jodi Lundmark

The National Post - Mar 12/2011
Pro-choice stickers lead to student suspensions by Ashley Csanady

The two articles published online at "Students sent home" and "Pro-life Support" are followed by dozens and dozens of comments covering numerous issues raised by this incident:
  • Does the school have the right to enforce a dress code?
  • Is a piece of tape in violation of the dress code?
  • Is this really about the pro-life vs. pro-choice debate?
  • Should Catholic Separate Schools continue to be funded?
  • Should the issue of abortion have ever been allowed in the school in the first place?
  • Freedom of speech vs. freedom of the Catholic school to dictate what it feels is right.

The following is a comment from Alexandria Szeglet's aunt (see comments in the article: "Students sent home")
Kerri says:
Alexandria is my niece and we are very proud of her ability to speak her own mind. This demonstration was done peacefully and without malice unlike some of the pro life demonstrations that have happened in the past. I am born and raised a Catholic woman, am well educated. Having attended a Catholic school myself, I am appalled at the ridiculousness of this situation and the stand that the school and school board have taken on this subject when Alex simply held true to her beliefs. Isn't that what we teach our children? To have independence, a mind of their own and to be secure in all the decisions they make?
Ask yourself this question: Would you want to be the person to explain who your child's dad was if you were a victim of rape or incest? OR What if your life was in mortal danger? PRO CHOICE means just that...a woman's choice. It's not a form of birth control nor is it a decision any woman would want to make. I know in my heart and in my wonderful niece's heart that she is intelligent enough to know what is right or wrong for her own self. We are proud of her if every sense and we will continue to support her throughout her life. It's a shame that the world is still stuck in the dark ages and that a woman still does not have the right to choose...This is a touchy subject that someone thought was ok for high schoolers to demonstrate...with the advent of Facebook and social media, what did they think would happen when people caught wind of today's events?

Another comment (my emphasis in bold)
kt says:
I'd just like to point out that Catholics are also against sex before marriage, yet St. Patricks has rooms for young mothers in the basement, which is practically saying that their okay with these young mothers going against the Catholic beliefs, and they support them.
but yet, these students cant even have a choice about abortion?
i find it funny that one of the reasons some students were sent home is because the green tape isnt part of uniform, yet the students can wear colourful scarves, and such little things like that, as long as the crest is showing. some students had "choice" written on their hands, or arms, which isnt bothering the uniform at all, yet they were still sent home, or told to wash it off. so clearly, they were sent home because of their opinion.

Reactions elsewhere:

Facebook: Catholics for Choice
Under an entry about this incident, a Kevin Saldanha writes, "Catholic schools in Ontario are PUBLIC and funded by tax dollars. However, their curriculum has to be approved by the area Bishops and that is a source of major conflict."

blog: Sandwalk
by Larry Moran, Professor in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Toronto
Ontario has two schools systems—both publicly funded. The "public schools" are open to all comers but the "Roman Catholic" ("Separate") school system isn't. I support the One School System Network.

blog: The Friendly Atheist
by Hemant Mehta
This was a respectful way to show dissent and the school put a stop to it because they didn’t ask for permission beforehand. What exactly are they teaching the kids? To keep quiet when they have a differing opinion? Alexandria wasn’t displaying any sort of hatred against the pro-life students. She wasn’t bullying them. She wasn’t saying they were evil or sinners or wicked. She wasn’t putting others down. She deserves to be commended. She’s the type of student any other school would be lucky to have.

Reddit: from a graduate of St. Patrick's high school
With regards to this specific event there is no argument that the school violated any rules, as they did not. The official reason for sending the students home was that they had not requested permission to wear the tape prior to the event, and as such the tape constituted a uniform violation. Those wearing red tape were not reprimanded because it had been requested prior to the actual day. However that shouldn’t stop people from expressing their opinions on this if they think it is unjust.

Reaction: Finding My Feminism
The blogger Not Guilty describes herself as: I'm a liberal feminist atheist with my law degree. I am pro-choice, pro-socialized medicine, and I am intolerant of intolerance. In her article "Crushing Free Speech but not Spirit" (Mar 11/2011), she takes exception to the actions of the school. Unlike the above reactions which remained merely in print, this blogger pro-actively wrote to the "Director of the offending school board", John De Faveri ( and to the Ontario Minister of Education, Leona Dombrowsky ( You can read her letters in full in her blog posting. She ends with:

Please write your own letters to both the School Board and the Ministry. If you believe that the Catholic School Boards should be de-funded, say so. We must press these issues.

I would also like to say how proud I am of the student who started this. She will grow into the most amazing woman if at 16 she was already to accept suspension for her support of women's rights. Rock on sister!

Final Word
Pro-life or pro-choice? The issue is very much a religious one more than political one and does this sort of thing have a place in a school at all? I'm sure we will always wonder if the school board would have approved of a green-tape pro-choice initiative; after all it is a Catholic school board. Of course, should the board have allowed the pro-life group in the first place?

My opinion?

History explains it, but modern times call for something else. We need to abolish the Catholic Separate Schools and work with a single public education system. Any religious group has the right to do what they want privately, but as a multi-cultural country, we should be providing for everyone in an all-inclusive manner. Separate schools are a thing of the past. They really never should have been allowed in the first place and we certainly can't afford such a luxury now.

Pro-life? Do what you want personally for yourself, but don't jam your beliefs down everybody else's throats. Religious fundamentalists pursue an unrealistic approach to abortion which has always failed and will always fail. Ah, I can hear you saying, "Pro-abortion". Not in the least. While I vote for abortion, I pursue every possible avenue to ensure that nobody faces the life-altering situation of an unwanted pregnancy. What does that mean? Sex education, handing out condoms, making birth control available, and of course, abstinence. But unlike the pro-lifers who blindly and slavishly follow only abstinence, my aim is to stop unwanted pregnancies in any way possible. My goal is not just to permit abortions, my goal is to ensure that nobody arrives at such a critical decision. An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure. See my blog Abortion: My final word on unwanted pregnancy. I repeat: if nobody had an "unwanted pregnancy", there would be no abortions. At all. Never. We would all achieve the same goal.

The St. Patrick High School invited this on themselves. I don't believe anybody should have been allowed to bring into the school such an obvious hot-button topic. This was asking for trouble and they got it. But since they did, I return to the statements of John De Faveri, Director of Education of the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board:

"the students who were sent home for the day were not removed from school for wearing the sticker, but for not taking it off."

I'm sorry, that's splitting hairs.

"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."

The answer to the question as to whether the green-tape initiative would have ever been pre-approved is an emphatic "no".


my blog: The Halton Catholic School Board: a "gay" anachronism

Wikipedia: The Thunder Bay Source
Dougall Media publishes a free weekly community newspaper, Thunder Bay's Source, which is delivered to 44,500 households in Thunder Bay each Friday. The paper covers local news, including city council, education, health care and the local political scene, as well as weekly entertainment and sports features. It also hosts a selection of local columnists, including outdoor writer Mick Bohonis and former CBC Radio personality Fred Jones.

It was formerly known as Thunder Bay Post, a name that was discontinued in October 2003. Prior to that it was known as Lakehead Living.

The paper's editorial staff also contributes to the news website, which also has material contributed from the company's radio and television newsrooms.

Wikipedia: St. Partick's High School (Thunder Bay)

St. Patrick High School is a Catholic high school located in the south end of Thunder Bay, Ontario. It is part of the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board, and its amenities include a chapel, custom-built music rooms, newly renovated auditorium (as of 2010), two gyms, a fully functional cafeteria, and wheelchair accessibility. The schools offers courses in French immersion. Unlike schools in the public system, students at St. Patrick are required to wear uniforms.

Wikipedia: Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board
The Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board oversees all Catholic schools in the Thunder Bay CMA and the townships of Gorham and Ware in Ontario, Canada. It administers education at 13 elementary schools, 2 senior elementary, and 2 secondary schools.

The Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board
Director's Office: Senior Administration

The Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board
Catholic Education Myths & Realities
[Two Adobe PDF documents]
Challenges to Catholic Education: A Letter to Parents/Guardian - May 29, 2007 (Adobe PDF)
Recently, some groups in the province have been advocating amalgamating school boards as a way of saving money. Their assumption that amalgamations lower costs is incorrect.
Catholic Education: Myths & Realities - April 2007 (Adobe PDF)
Over the 160-year history of Catholic education in Ontario there have been groups and individuals who have called for the elimination of publicly funded Catholic schools. These attacks on our system have taken many forms, including books, articles, pamphlets, media advertisements, Letters to the editor and recently an email petition campaign. Whatever the motivation of these groups and individuals, their arguments and the rationale for their position are similar and are often filled with myths and inaccuracies.

Wikipedia: Thunder Bay
Thunder Bay (2006 census population 109,140), formerly the twin cities of Fort William and Port Arthur, is a city in and the seat of Thunder Bay District, Ontario, Canada. It is the most populous municipality in Northwestern Ontario, and the second most populous in Northern Ontario after Greater Sudbury. The census metropolitan area of Thunder Bay has a population of 122,907, and consists of the city of Thunder Bay, the municipalities of Oliver Paipoonge and Neebing, the townships of Shuniah, Conmee, O'Connor and Gillies and the Fort William First Nation.


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Veronica Abbass said...

Thank you so much for posting on Sandwalk and drawing my attention to your very detailed and informative post on this topic. You did a lot of research and I need time to read all the information on this post before I comment further.

However, I found this at the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board website

Challenges to Catholic Education: A Letter to Parents/Guardian
Catholic Education: Myths & Realities

Anonymous said...

We sent our three kids to the separate school system because we thought they would get a better education there and because we believed the separate school system environment was a better environment than the public system.
We are not Catholics.

If anything the system should give parents a voucher which they could use for any schooling they wish including homeschooling or independent schools.

I resent the idea that people want to promote only one system that has its own biases and points of view. There is no such thing as neutral schooling.

Veronica Abbass said...

Anonymous said...

"We sent our three kids to the separate school system because we thought they would get a better education there"

So, how did it work out? Did your children get a better education?

Anonymous said...

Hard to say.
But they certainly were exposed to better values and a better environment than when we had to transfer them later to the public system.
Night and day.

Anonymous said...

For people who have traditional values (even if they are not religious people) the public system incorporates a value system that is not good.
For example, I am not religious but I consider abortion as murder. And there are other values as well.
There is no school system that is value free. The public school system has a definite value system.

Veronica Abbass said...

Values is one of those abstract words that needs defining. Tradional values is a phrase that cojures up a misplaced nostalgia for the 1950s.

According to the Myths and Realities pdf at

"At the heart of Catholic education is the person of Jesus and the good news of His gospel."

The home page of the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board contains this message:

"We are committed to providing quality education which combines academic excellence with a concern for the spiritual, moral, social, emotional, cultural and physical growth of the student." This is just a broad statement that hides as much as it reveals. However, the spiritual and moral growth they are concerned with is Catholic moral and spiritual growth, and I suspect that many academic subjects, especially literature subjects, reflect that bias.

Anonymous said...

kt says:
"I'd just like to point out that Catholics are also against sex before marriage, yet St. Patricks has rooms for young mothers in the basement, which is practically saying that their okay with these young mothers going against the Catholic beliefs, and they support them.
but yet, these students cant even have a choice about abortion?"

I once crossed paths with an abortion protest, near where I lived. -- I was not taking part on either side, just to be clear! My cold blooded, logical thoughts - You're against premarital sex, so these fetuses shouldn't have been conceived in the first place. Who knows, or cares why anyone was at the clinic that day, of course but I'm speaking to the pro-lifer's stereotype.

That "St. Patricks has rooms for young mothers" also means that deep down they know whatever they are teaching as sex ed - abstinence or whatever isn't working, and they have a problem they have to deal with.
Studies of course show comprehensive sex ed, with birth control is more effective. Maybe just teaching people to not be ashamed of their sexuality. -- Oh wait that's Unitarian :)

Anonymous said...

Is the public school system concerned about the
spiritual growth of its students?
Is it concerned about the moral growth of its students?
If you think so, can you please give some examples of how they do that?

Veronica Abbass said...

To Anonymous who posted at 13 March, 2011 7:34 PM

The answer to your first two questions is "I don't know"; however, I checked the Toronto District School Board website and its mission statement does not mention spiritual and moral growth.

Its mission statement says

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is first and foremost an educator of children and youth. It is our duty, with the support of families and the community, to provide our students with the skills, knowledge, and abilities they need to reach their maximum potential, now and throughout their lives. We take that responsibility seriously.

We are the largest publicly-funded school board in Canada, and one of the largest in North America.

Anonymous said...

Do you think the public school system should consider the spiritual growth of its students?

Do you think the public school system should consider the moral growth of its students?

Veronica Abbass said...

Anonymous at 14 March, 2011 8:23 PM

I see you have rephrased the questions you posted 13 March, 2011 7:34 PM.

My answers to the questions on your latest comment are no and no.

If you want me to give longer answers to these questions, please use another nom de plume. I suspect you are the same Anonymous that posted the comment on Sandwalk on Monday, March 14, 2011 11:28:00 PM.

Anonymous said...

Veronica, you can give longer answers or not. That is your choice.
The bottom line is that you do not think the school system should consider the moral growth or the spiritual growth of its students.

Ian said...

This is a fantastic and detailed breakdown of the entire story. Keep up the great work.