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North Van schools to walk the talk on SOGI inclusion

Schools must go beyond gender-neutral washrooms to foster inclusive environments, trustees told
rainbow crosswalk cleveland
Students at Cleveland Elementary in North Vancouver celebrate a rainbow crosswalk.

The North Vancouver School District is signaling a plan to up its game when it comes to creating an inclusive environment for the LGBTQ community.

For the past five years, the local school district has embraced a “SOGI” (sexual orientation and gender identity) policy aimed at fostering a welcoming environment for students and staff of various sexual orientations and gender identities.

But educators need to go beyond lip service, director of instruction Vince White recently told trustees.

That includes making textbooks and other resources available that show diversity in sexual orientation, said White, using gender-neutral language when addressing groups, and making sure gender-neutral washrooms and change rooms are available. It also includes making sure any accommodation arrangements for overnight trips take into account students’ gender identity and expressions, he said.

Carolyn Pena, president of the North Vancouver Teachers Association, told the board having access to appropriate resources is key for teachers.

“What we really want is for all community members, and especially students, to see themselves reflected in the learning materials that are used in schools,” she said. “So students are seeing those, it's not just something we talk about.” Currently that is a challenge, she said.

White told trustees when SOGI-inclusive policies were first introduced in schools, the emphasis was on “anti-homophobia and the need to protect students who may be different.” Since then, however, the emphasis has moved to supporting inclusion, said White, and “about creating the acknowledgement of these various aspects of diversity that exists within our school communities.”

That means acknowledging “hetero-normative structures” within the school system and encouraging more gender-neutral language and options, he added, that go beyond a choice of washroom.

Students and families should only have to identify gender on school forms if necessary, for instance, he said, and in those cases should also be provided a “non-binary option.”

Classes and programs in schools should generally not be divided along gender lines, said White. In cases where that does happen – like some PE classes – students should be allowed to register in the class that matches their gender identity, he said.

Athletic programs in the school district are already run in alignment with guidelines established by the B.C. School Sports association. Under those guidelines, students can join a team consistent with their gender identity but must apply first and have a letter from their parent vouching for their consistently identifying with that gender. Girls may also join boys’ teams if a girls’ team is not offered in a sport.

Trustee Kulvir Mann asked whether gender-neutral washrooms would be provided in elementary schools.

White said in older schools, a gender-neutral option would be provided as needed. In the future the plan is to build schools where those options are already in place, he said.

Alluding to some other Lower Mainland school districts, where SOGI policies have sparked controversy among both parents and trustees, Trustee Megan Higgins said she was glad the issue is not controversial in North Vancouver “at least at the board level.”