Update to guidelines on supporting gender-diverse N.S. students still in limbo

The Nova Scotia government says it's still working on new guidance for public educators about gender-diversity in schools. But after more than a year, that work has yet to yield any changes.

Large numbers of 2SLGBTQ+ students at Nova Scotia public schools report being the targets of hate, feeling unsafe or threatened and struggling with mental-health problems.

NDP MLA Lisa Lachance said the prolonged process of updating the guidelines is concerning.

"When we have a vulnerable population that we know is vulnerable, we should be doing everything to support them doing their best," Lachance said.

Lisa Lachance is the NDP environment critic.
NDP MLA Lisa Lachance says the prolonged timeline for updating the guidelines is concerning. (Robert Short/CBC)

The guidelines for supporting transgender and gender-nonconforming students were released in 2014 and have not been altered since. They're meant to help teachers and administrators protect gender-diverse students from discrimination, but critics say the guidelines have holes and lack clarity.

Starting in early 2023, the Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development convened focus groups with students and consulted with stakeholders to inform an update to the guidelines. By the fall, a draft was under review by department officials.

The department declined to make anyone available for an interview for this story. But Annie Baert, executive director of student services and equity, said at a government committee meeting this week that work to update the guidelines will continue into the next school year.

Baert said the update "will be aligned and released along with the other components of the work that is happening around safe and inclusive schools," referring to the government's response to an auditor general report on school violence.

Lachance said they hope the needs of gender-diverse students are not lost in that process.

"There are really specific concerns and experiences of 2SLGBTQIA+ young people, and we actually know them quite well," they said.

2SLGBTQ+ students report hate, mental-health struggles 

Lachance pointed to the results of last year's student success survey, which included students in Nova Scotia public schools from Grade 4 through Grade 12. It captured responses from more than half of the student body across the province.

DDSB said the Pride flag was raised Tuesday at Dr. Roberta Bondar Public School in Ajax and will remain up through Pride Month in June.
The Nova Scotia government says it will not change its guidance on name and pronoun use. School staff are meant to use preferred names and pronouns, without parental consent, starting in Grade 7. (Eduardo Lima/The Canadian Press)

The survey found 51 per cent of 2SLGBTQ+ students experienced homophobia or transphobia in the 2022/2023 school year. Of those, only 20 per cent thought their school did a good job responding, and 78 per cent said the experience affected their mental health.

The survey said 49 per cent of 2SLGBTQ+ students reported missing school for mental-health reasons, compared to 19 per cent overall.

Forty-two per cent of 2SLGBTQ+ students in the survey said they felt unsafe or threatened at school, compared to 23 per cent overall.

Societal changes require new guidance: expert

Alec Stratford, executive director of the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers, said an update to the guidelines is needed because the social and political climate has changed since the original document was written. He pointed to rising rates of violence in schools and a growing movement of people rejecting gender diversity.

Stratford said he takes the drawn-out timeline as a sign that the issue is not a priority for the provincial government.

"When it comes to any kind of government initiative, we can see government move very quickly on issues when they are motivated to do so," said Stratford.

Alec Stratford, executive director of the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers, pictured in his office on Dec. 7, 2023.
Alec Stratford, executive director of the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers, says the provincial government seems unmotivated to act on issues related to children and youth. (Robert Short/CBC)

He gave as an example the PC government's attention to health care, with a myriad of new programs launched and large investments made since the party came into power three years ago.

"We haven't seen the same speed with issues protecting the rights of children and youth as we have in other areas. And that speaks to political motivation," he said.

Stratford said he hopes the new guidelines will provide specific ways teachers and administrators can proactively ensure gender diverse students feel included in the classroom and clear guidance on how to respond to bullying.

Lachance said they would like the updated guidelines to have a greater focus on inclusive curriculum and access to gender-neutral bathrooms.

The Education Department has said the guidance on names and pronouns will not change.

It currently states that "transgender and gender-nonconforming students have the right to be addressed by their preferred name(s) and pronoun(s) that correspond to their gender identity."

The guidelines say school staff should ask a parent or guardian to consent to name or pronoun changes from grades primary to 7. From Grade 7 to Grade 12, parental or guardian consent is not required.