The small picture of a black toilet on a white background above the word “washroom” has become a big sign of inclusion for a rural school district in Saskatchewan.
Prairie Valley School Division, near Regina, has created all-gender washrooms at all of its facilities, including elementary schools.
Director of education Ben Grebinski says it was important to include elementary schools because transgender children of all ages need support from educators.
“You can’t differentiate between a five-year-old and a 17-year-old. When you become familiar and aware of their preference, you have to be able to accommodate that preference,” Grebinski says.
The division spent a year creating a diversity policy. There was no human rights complaint to force action. Parents were consulted on the policy.
“There was a little bit of opposition in certain circumstances because people felt kind of uncomfortable with this,” says Grebinski.
“And what we found was that as soon as people became aware of the purpose and our intent here was to just provide humanity, with an opportunity to be expressive and to be who they were on an individual basis without any kind of alienation, people were very willing and accepting, so frankly we didn’t have any challenges or issues.”
Dr. Kristopher Wells, an assistant professor with the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta, says elementary schools are becoming the new front lines as parents seek support for their transitioning children.
“It’s now not uncommon to be working to support transgender youth as young as six or seven,” Wells says. “Ultimately, it comes down issues of safety and inclusion in schools and if students don’t feel safe and they don’t feel included, they’re not going to be able to learn.”
Wells, along with two transgender teachers, wrote a guidebook for the Canadian Teachers Federation on how to support transgender kids.
Their recommendations include creating a school policy ensuring all transgender students can use a washroom corresponding to their asserted gender identity. If students do not feel safe using these washrooms, the guide suggests, schools provide access to a private or staff washroom.
“You start with the child first and you work outward,” Wells says. “It’s their decision to make not anybody else’s, and that’s where we run into problems saying ‘You can only use this bathroom’.”