EDITORIAL: N.S. beats Alberta in supporting trans students

Nova Scotia may be behind the western provinces in economic prosperity, but when it comes to easing the way for students in our schools, we have Alberta beat.

New guidelines from the province on how schools should accommodate transgender and gender-nonconforming students encourage school principals, teachers and staff to use sensitivity and common sense when, for example, finding suitable athletic changing rooms for a transgender student.

The 28-page report released by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Learning contains statistics that highlight worrisome problems in the school system for transgender students.

A seven-year survey of more than 3,700 students across Canada found that 90 per cent of transgender youth hear transphobic comments daily or weekly from other students, and just shy of a quarter said they’d heard teachers making such comments. Almost three quarters of transgender students were verbally harassed, while one quarter were physically harassed.

School can be challenging for any child, but it is particularly rough on kids who, for whatever reason, are the brunt of jokes, comments and bullying from their peers and even teachers and staff.

The guidelines, which were developed in consultation with The Youth Project in Halifax, the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, the Nova Scotia Teachers Union and school board members, are not rules — but school board and schools are encouraged to adhere to them, particularly in terms of students’ human rights.

In contrast, the issue of gender in Alberta schools burst onto the front pages earlier this month when Jim Prentice’s Conservative government tried to sideline a Liberal bill on inclusiveness by drafting its own bill that was anything but.

The Liberal bill would have made it mandatory for schools to set up gay-straight alliances for students who want them. Sponsor Laurie Blakeman notes that the highest rate of teen suicide is among sexual minority youth, who get valuable peer and anti-bullying support from gay-straight alliance clubs.

Among other things, the Conservatives’ original bill would have forced students trying to set up a gay-straight alliance at their school to go to court if the school administration or local school board turned them down.

The public complained and the bill was amended to make the minister of education the final arbitrator. Mr. Prentice has since put it on hold pending consultation.

The evidence for supporting LBGT students is compelling. In one recent study, U.B.C. researchers found that in schools that have had gay-straight alliances for three or more years, the chance of discrimination and suicidal thoughts among LGBT students dropped by more than half compared to schools without such alliances.

And heterosexual boys were half as likely to try to kill themselves as boys in schools without alliances.

It’s clear that policies that foster support and inclusion are healthier for everyone — especially teenagers in school.

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