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Transgender guidelines helpful to schools, staff, students

New guidelines released by the Nova Scotia government to help schools, staff and students support transgender and gender non-conforming students are certain to help stakeholders navigate difficult situations in the future, says education lawyer Sheila MacKinnon.

The guidelines, released by the Education Department last month, affirm students’ rights under the Human Rights Act and suggest ways to safeguard their privacy and safety and accommodate their needs, reports the CBC.

The document, called Guidelines for Supporting Transgender and Gender-nonconforming Students, says transgender or gender non-conforming students have the right to “be openly who they are, and they have a right to privacy and confidentiality.”

It also states that students may use whichever washroom aligns with their identity and “where possible, schools should provide an easily accessible, gender-neutral, single-stall washroom,” reports the CBC.

The guidelines also weigh in on the issue of a student’s legal name, stating it must be used on report cards, transcripts, diplomas and in PowerSchool, an electronic record-keeping system, but students may choose the name and pronoun by which they wish to be addressed. Children in classes from Primary to Grade 6 must have parental consent to use a preferred name, reports the CBC.

Dress codes should be flexible and gender-neutral, say the guidelines, and gender-segregated activities such as boys versus girls events should be eliminated.

MacKinnon, a partner with Shibley Righton LLP who has been consulted on issues related to transgender and gender non-conforming students in Ontario, applauds the creation of the guidelines.

“The fact that they’ve implemented guidelines is going to help guide school boards set policies and protect students from discrimination,” she says.

In Ontario, discrimination due to gender identity and gender expression is touched on in several ways, says MacKinnon.

The province’s Human Rights Code protects people from discrimination and harassment because of gender identity and gender expression in certain settings, including schools, she says. The Ontario Human Rights Commission also has a policy called Preventing discrimination because of gender identity and gender expression, and the Toronto District School Board has guidelines in place to “raise awareness and help protect against discrimination and harassment.”

Titled Guidelines for the Accommodation of Transgender and Gender Independent/Non-Conforming Students and Staff, the school board’s guidelines discuss bathroom and changeroom use and how individual accommodations are made.

In general, MacKinnon says the scenarios that arise in schools are difficult to navigate, and often point to the need for more education and awareness in the area of gender identity.

“Most times, these situations need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis,” says the education lawyer. “These issues are very sensitive. The fact is, it has to be addressed to protect the dignity of the student involved and to counter the misunderstanding of the matter by the general public."

In one case MacKinnon is familiar with, a six-year-old child wanted a different pronoun used in reference to gender, but the parents disagreed.

“In these cases, it helps staff to have guidance through policies.”

And the policies help students as well, adds MacKinnon.

“Schools have to have inclusive environments where a student's individuality and rights are respected,” she says.

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