Bethlehem College. Photo / Mead Norton
Five complaints about a Christian college’s beliefs about marriage, sexuality and gender diversity have been filed with the Department of Education in the past two years.
But the chairman of Bethlehem College’s board of trustees says the school takes its responsibility to provide a caring environment “very seriously” and has addressed the concerns raised.
Ministry data released under the Official Information Act shows it received five complaints about Bethlehem College and its beliefs about marriage, sex and sexuality between 2019 and 2021.
In the document, the ministry provided a summary of the complaints and how staff responded to each of the issues raised.
It comes after the Bay of Plenty weekend published an article in June in which LGBTQ+ community advocates spoke out against the school asking parents to acknowledge its belief that marriage is between a man and a woman in its special character statement.
The school removed the marriage item from the statement later that month after the ministry requested it.
It was also revealed earlier that the school also had a working document outlining the school’s position on gender which stated that “a person’s biological sex is determined at conception to be male or a woman and her gender identity must correspond to her biological sex”.
At the time, the school responded that “it is neither wise nor kind” to support children on the path to experimental hormonal and surgical medical interventions, but acknowledged “that gender and gender issues identity are really difficult and sensitive for people”.
Ministry data showed that on October 12, 2020, Gender Dynamix – an organization that serves the needs of the heterogeneous community – raised concerns with the ministry regarding the “human rights” of a child who was attending the ‘school.
Gender Dynamix’s director of general operations sent the ministry a copy of the letter the school board gave to the child’s parent.
In response, the Department provided the Head of School and Chair of the Board with guidance on obligations under Section 127 of the Education and Training Act.
It provided the school with resources aimed at “helping schools develop policies to promote safety and inclusion for rainbow learners,” the OIA said.
The board was also asked to seek advice from the New Zealand School Trustees Association.
In another complaint filed on February 3 last year, a parent at the school contacted the department with concerns about his child.
Further details of the complaint were withheld from the OIA to protect the privacy of the child.
In response to this complaint, the ministry provided further information to the Principal and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Bethlehem College.
This included relevant guidance from the Human Rights Commission and the main objectives of the council under Section 127 of the Education and Training Act.
Four months later, he received a complaint from a parent whose child was attending Bethlehem College expressing concern about a working paper released by the school titled “Summary of Gender Beliefs as special school”.
The ministry said it was working with the principal, board and owner of Bethlehem College to improve inclusion for all students.
Information was provided to parents on the main purposes of integrated public schools and school boards under the Education and Training Act.
On June 17, a member of the school community copied the department in a complaint sent to the principal regarding the inclusion of point 13 in the school’s statement of belief, sex education and the treatment of LGBTQ+ students.
The department said it had informed the complaining schools that they were bound by the obligations and provisions set out in the Education and Training Act and that it was working with the school to ensure that it complied with these provisions.
Late last year, a member of the public called the department concerned about messages given to students at a school assembly.
The department advised the individual to contact the school and follow their complaint process.
The Tauranga-based organization Gender Dynamix has been approached for comment.
LGBTQ+ lawyer Gordy Lockhart, who founded the group Tauranga Moana YoubeYou in June 2022, said, in his opinion, the school only decided to remove point 13 from its statement of belief after “a enormous media attention”.
He said it was particularly worrying given that a complaint about the statement had been lodged with the ministry last year.
Lockhart said, in his view, this suggests the school was “incredibly thoughtless” about the impact of this statement and its stance toward LGBTQ+ students.
“They are aware that their belief in the LGBT community is causing harm. My comment, as a member of society, is why the hell – especially in an educational environment – would you choose to embrace a belief that hurt people.”
Bethlehem board chairman Paul Shakes said he couldn’t go into specifics about individual cases, but the school had “addressed and resolved all concerns raised”.
This included all complaints referred by the department, he said.
“We take our responsibility to provide a caring learning environment very seriously, and our Education Review Board reports consistently find that our Christian character contributes to a strong sense of student well-being and to higher levels very high academic achievement.
He said the school also works with ERO to find out directly from students how “emotionally and physically safe, caring and inclusive our school environment is”.
Early results are encouraging and he looks forward to sharing them with the school community in the coming weeks, he said.
In response to Lockhart’s comments, Shakes said that as a Christian school “we have Christian beliefs and we think they are helpful and not harmful.”
“Indeed, Christian beliefs underpin the freedoms we enjoy today, including Mr. Lockhart’s right to freely express his disapproval of those beliefs.”
He went on to say that while the board didn’t want to disappoint Lockhart, “we haven’t changed any of our beliefs because of media coverage or anything else.”
Instead, he said the school has returned to the original statement as it considers how best to communicate beliefs about marriage to the community and potential families.
“While we don’t expect everyone to agree with every Christian belief we hold, we will always listen to people’s concerns and address them as best we can,” he said. .
“We continue to encourage anyone with concerns to speak to us directly, ideally through our complaints process.”
Ministry of Education Te Tai Whenua hautū (assistant secretary) Jocelyn Mikaere said all schools have a written complaints policy and advised parents who raise concerns with the agency to follow up with the school first.
Mikaere said the ministry continues to meet regularly with Bethlehem College, alongside the ERO team.
ERO is currently reviewing Bethlehem College and will report its findings publicly in due course, she said.