When students filled the halls at the start of the 2017 school year in Prince Rupert, there was a new addition among them. More than 15 signs for gender-neutral washrooms were installed in School District 52, one for each school and administration building.
The signs, which have both the English and Sm’algyax word for washroom, read “This washroom may be used by any person regardless of gender identity or expression” and can accomodate people with physical disabilities.
“Why wouldn’t you just have a washroom for all people?” asked superintendent Ken Minette. He said the School Board wants to “make sure all students feel welcome in school as they go through changes in their life.” That includes students who are transitioning or may be figuring out how to express themselves.
This changes comes after the B.C. Human Rights Code was amended in July 2016 to include gender identity and gender expression as protected personal characteristics that cannot be discriminated against. In responce, the School Board created the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) committee of students, parents, teachers and district staff.
It was the students of that committee who requested the washrooms. “The kids wanted to be able to use the bathroom without having to ask for special permission or to wonder which would be the right one for them to use. They just wanted to have a safe place to be recognized and acknowledged,” said Christine Franes, the District Principal for Learning Services.
“For some students,” Minette said, “going into boys’ or girls’ washrooms is not a safe situation.”
Students who identify as LGBTQ are three times more likely to experience discrimination. But when inclusive environments are created, the health concerns associated with bullying decrease.
A B.C. study of health disparity for LGBTQ people recently found that suicide rates of straight males went down by 50 per cent in the last school year when they attended schools that have inclusive LGBTQ policies and clubs like Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs).
GSA student clubs in School District 52 have also changed their name to Gay Lesbian or Whatever (GLOW) in an effort to be more inclusive to all sexual orientations and gender identities.
“I really like the name they came up with,” Franes said. So does Minette. While there are GLOW clubs in every level of schools in the district, “you notice it more so in the middle school and high school where gender expression is becoming predominant. The students are more aware and susceptible to feeling the need for a safer environment,” he said.
Once the SOGI committee heard the request, they began working on designs for the signs. The quick turnaround for the project, Franes said, made students feel like their needs had been heard.
“I really think the [gender-neutral] bathrooms are one way that shows all members of the school district community that this is a vibrant and important part of our community. It helps to provide that safety for students, to provide that welcoming and safe space so as to reduce the chances that they will be discriminated against. We are working to raise awareness and we think the bathrooms is one way to do that and reduce the risks,” said Franes.
Minette and Franes both said the responce they have received about the new signs has been positive. Students and staff alike have been using the facilities regularly. For SOGI, the next step will be gathering formal feedback from the students.
“We want to make sure that this is working for them,” said Franes, “because this is who we are doing this for.”