Safe and inclusive school environments are especially important to those who have marginalized experiences, such as those who are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer, 2-spirited, or other gender or sexuality minorities (LGBTQ2+). This article reports on the efforts by the Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (EECD), in partnership with the LGBTQ2+ community, to transform schools into spaces where all children and youth are equitably included, validated and affirmed.
A sense of safety, acceptance, and belonging at school is essential to the academic development and well-being of children and youth. Safe and inclusive school environments are especially important to those who have marginalized experiences, such as those who are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer, 2-spirited, or other gender or sexuality minorities (LGBTQ2+).
The Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (EECD), in partnership with the LGBTQ2+ community, is on a journey to transform schools into spaces where all children and youth are equitably included, validated and affirmed. To allow people to authentically live and express their identities, meaningful and purposeful changes are being made to school spaces, the student information system, curriculum, policies and guidelines, and school-based resources. Although significant changes have occurred to better support the educational experiences of LGBTQ2+ learners, we remain committed to reaching every classroom in every school.
Queer youth are not simply waiting for us to catch up; instead they have become the force of transformation within the education system. Almost unimaginable a decade ago, the subject of gender identity, expression and sexuality has become an undeniable part of the landscape within schools today. Young people are erasing the lines created by the historical binaries of gender expression and heteronormative expectations. Youth, their allies, and parents have called upon the education system to examine how schools need to change to support the identities of all learners and to ensure they have equitable access to all aspects of school life. A report by EGALE Canada (2011), Every Class in Every School,1 stresses the importance of appropriate consultation when considering vulnerable groups, GSAs, teacher preparation, curriculum and policy development.
Over the past several years in Nova Scotia, a strong collaborative partnership has grown between EECD and the Youth Project, a non-profit organization whose mission is, “to make Nova Scotia a safer, healthier, and happier place for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth through support, education, resource expansion and community development.” The Youth Project, through first voice and leadership, has played an integral role in supporting schools and EECD with student workshops, teacher and leadership professional development, Gender and Sexuality Alliances (GSAs), curriculum and resource consultation, and facility design. Through our collaboration with the Youth Project, the education system is becoming more informed, inclusive and intentional in its design and practice.
In December 2012, the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act was amended to disallow discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression. In 2014, the Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (EECD) responded with the Guidelines to Support Transgender and Gender-nonconforming Students.2 The guidelines were prepared in consultation with youth and organizations representing the LGBTQ2+ community, and included topics such as: supporting students and their individual process, preferred name and pronouns, maintaining school records, gender expression, school-based activities, and access to washrooms and changerooms. They helped educators grow in their understanding of current issues facing transgender and gender-diverse children and youth in schools, and also brought to the surface a recognition of how gendered and non-inclusive many of the beliefsand practices are in the education system, and how they need to change.
Gender and sexuality alliances
Nova Scotia Education and Early Childhood Development data from 2016-17 indicated that approximately 65 percent of schools in the province, with Grade 7 -12 students, had a Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA). Since this time, the number of GSAs has been growing, with a number of elementary schools now participating. Queer youth tell us that when GSAs are present in schools, they feel safer, more accepted and supported. They can identify and express their gender and/or sexuality more freely and with pride. EECD, with our partners, continues to work to increase the number of GSAs in schools and to ensure they are active and impactful school-based supports for learners. Our goal is to have a GSA in every school, that is celebrated and recognized as an important impetus in changing school culture.
Washroom and changeroom design
Included in the Guidelines to Support Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming Students, is a recommendation to provide safe access to washroom and changeroom facilities in accordance with the student’s gender identity. The guidelines state:
“All students have a right to safe washroom and change-room facilities. They have the right to use facilities that they are comfortable using and that correspond to their gender identity, regardless of their sex assigned at birth. Transgender and gender-nonconforming students have the right to supports that best meet the student’s individual needs.” (pg. 15)
In response, the team at Facilities Management began to think differently about traditional washroom and changeroom design. They began exploring ways these spaces could be changed to support transgender and gender-diverse students. As a result, a highly consultative process began which included, educators, school administrators, EECD staff, architects, engineers, Youth Project staff, and students, including local LGBTQ2+ students. Through this process, it became evident that addressing gender and gender identity rights actually addresses the universal rights of all people. As a result, new school construction and renovations include innovative washroom and changeroom designes that are non-gendered and inclusive, and respond to concerns in relation to the safety and privacy of all students. Darrell MacDonald, Director of Education Facilities Project Services for the NS Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, explains,
“Our focus on universality has been the cornerstone of the success of the initiatives. The two foundational elements of privacy and safety, which aren’t limited to any particular segment of society but are truly universal, have allowed us to overcome social stigmas.”
Early Years curriculum development
In 2017, EECD introduced the Pre-primary Program to several schools across Nova Scotia, with a commitment to have the program available in all schools by 2020. The initiative provides free and accessible early childhood education to four-year-olds. The Youth Project (YP) consulted with EECD staff in the development of Nova Scotia’s Early Learning curriculum framework. which introduces gender flexible practices and an opportunity to interrupt the traditional gendered behaviours and expectations in early learning environments. We must intentionally support gender-creative children to affirm how they feel and allow them to explore who they are.
Student information system and registration
Providing children and youth the opportunity to safely express their name, gender identity and preferred pronoun affirms who they are and enhances their sense of belonging. We are reprogramming and creating spaces in PowerSchool, our student information system, and the school registration process, where learners and/or their parents can equitably document their authentic identity. This allows us to register learners without causing undue harm and stress, or inadvertently outing individuals.
Although there was previously a process by which students could identify a preferred name that would be used by teachers and school staff, it was not visible in all areas of PowerSchool. For example, lists generated by the student information system, such as substitute roll call, honor roll, student fees and even yearbook pictures, still displayed the legal name and not the learner’s preferred name. To correct this issue, in 2018, PowerSchool was updated to display the preferred name on all school documents including report cards, and in all areas of the system. Although the legal name remains in PowerSchool, it is only presented on official documents, such as academic transcripts and provincial high school diplomas.
In 2019, the Nova Scotia Vital Statistics Act was amended to include the gender marker “X”, in addition to M (male) and F (female), similar to the change made to Canadian Passports. This has resulted in further updates to PowerSchool and the school registration process. The system will now record gender, instead of identified sex at birth, include the gender marker “X” for non-binary and other gender identities, and will no longer require a legal gender change through Vital Statistics in order to have one’s identity documented in schools. For the majority, sex assigned at birth and gender identity align, therefore no change is necessary. For learners who are transgender, gender fluid or diverse, this change will empower them to safely identify who they are without fear and unwanted stigma. These changes will continue to challenge the strictly held lines of traditional binaries and expand our understanding of diverse identities.
More recently, we have been focusing on the complexities of intersectionality, such as race and socio-economics, in relation to our work in gender, gender identity and sexuality. In addition, we are attempting to make connections with other initiatives, such as inclusive education, culturally responsive pedagogy, and relational approaches. There is an ongoing need to support educators, through professional learning opportunities, relevant curriculum and resources, and innovative leadership. Through all this, it is our obligation to create school cultures that acknowledge and respect all learners and their families. Our experience tells us, this cannot be done in the absence of safe, trusting and authentic partnerships with community.
To guide our future direction, we remain focused on the voices of our LGBTQ2+ learners and the affirmation of who they are in all areas of their lives. Issues of equity must remain at the core of our vision for education. From classrooms, to schools, to government, we are called to educate ourselves, challenge our biases and beliefs, and revise our processes and practices to ensure a safe and inclusive educational experience for all.
First published in Education Canada, May 2019
1 Taylor, C. & Peter, T. (2011). Every class in every school: Final report on the first national climate survey on homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in Canadian schools, Egale Canada Human Rights Trust. https://egale.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/EgaleFinalReport-web.pdf