Hamilton

Transgender student says teachers keep using wrong pronouns and name, and wants more done about it

A Grade 8 student says Dr. J. E. Davey Elementary School in Hamilton isn't doing enough to deal with teachers who consistently refer to them by the wrong gender and use their former name: "If I correct them, they kind of go like, 'Yeah, yeah,' or brush it off," Alex says.

'It made me not like school and not want to go there,' says Grade 8 student in Hamilton

Alex is a Grade 8 student at Dr. J. E. Davey Elementary School in Hamilton who says many teachers and students weren't supportive when they came out last year as transgender. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

It's been more than a year since Alex came out as transgender.

Alex said that when they first made it public while in Grade 7 at Dr. J. E. Davey Elementary School in Hamilton, many students and their teacher weren't supportive.

"It made me not like school and not want to go there," said Alex, who is only being identified by their first name due to their age and safety concerns.

Alex said they still don't go a day without being misgendered by teachers and students. They added that unlike students, who have reportedly been suspended, none of the teachers seem to face any consequences.

The issue of misgendering is important, as transgender people have higher rates of suicide and mental health issues than others, according to research. A recent study led by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto suggests such concerns are linked to the discrimination they face.

Alex acknowledged that being misgendered or referred to by their former name (an action known as deadnaming) has impacted their mental health.

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School needs to take more action, family says

Alex said while anyone may make a mistake, some teachers have consistently misgendered or deadnamed them. Alex added that when they and their fellow classmates ask for the mistake to be corrected and for an apology, the teachers are dismissive or appear annoyed.

"With a few teachers, it kind of feels like they're doing it on purpose or they're not trying at all because they do it a lot, and if I correct them they kind of go like, 'Yeah, yeah,' or brush it off," Alex explained.

Some teachers also haven't bothered to correct students who misgender or deadname their peers, Alex said.

In one case, Alex said they quit the volleyball team because the coach repeatedly misgendered them. Alex later asked the school to have limited contact with that teacher, and said the school obliged.

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board
The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board has grappled with bullying issues in recent years. (Christopher Langenzarde/CBC)

Alex and their mother, Tanya O'Connell, said they're aware the school is doing work behind the scenes and training teachers to be more inclusive. It's unclear exactly what training teachers receive. But the family also says that, in most cases, there doesn't seem to be any reprimand for teachers who continue to refer to Alex in the wrong way.

When asked for an interview for comment on concerns by Alex and their mother, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) declined the request.

A statement from Gerry Smith, the superintendent responsible for student achievement at Dr. J. E. Davey Elementary School, stated HWDSB could not discuss personnel matters.

That said, "staff adhere to our safe schools, equity and human rights policies," read Smith's statement.

"At HWDSB, students — regardless of their gender, gender identity or sexual orientation — should feel safe at school."

Family says school dismisses bullying concerns

But Alex said the school has, at times, been sluggish to respond to concerns about bullying.

In recent years, HWDSB has grappled with bullying that has gone unchecked many times, as indicated in a report published last year.

Alex brings up a recent example, which involved showing their teacher screenshots of a group chat on Snapchat.

Those screenshots, viewed by CBC Hamilton, appeared to show a student using homophobic slurs.

When they initially flagged this, Alex said, the response from the school was it couldn't follow up because it couldn't control what students did online.

Smith would only say the school was working with families involved and was "committed to finding a resolution."

About two weeks later, Alex said, the school suspended the student.

"I shouldn't have to get angry for them to do something," O'Connell said. "What Alex is experiencing is traumatic."

Expert says school boards need to do better

Alex and O'Connell said the school has said it would aim to improve conditions in future, but Alex is left wondering about the options for today's transgender students.

"Alex is still being misgendered on a daily basis. Alex is not benefiting from these strategies, or training or approaches … my priority is my child's safety, and when they're being misgendered, they're not safe," O'Connell said.

"The intention doesn't matter … the impact is not there."

Fae Johnstone, executive director of Wisdom2Action, an LGBTQ+ consultancy firm, has worked with Ottawa's public school board to improve inclusivity.

Johnstone said transgender students across Canada commonly deal with the issues Alex has faced.

WATCH | LGBTQ consultant says school boards need action plans:

LGBTQ consultant says school boards need action plans to fight transphobia

2 years ago
Duration 1:15
Fae Johnstone, the executive director of Wisdom2Action, an LGBTQ+ consultancy firm, said transgender students are still big targets for bullying in schools.

They said each school board's approach to accommodate trans students varies — some do one-off training sessions rather than having a concrete plan in place.

"I want to see school boards with implementation plans that include financial resources dedicated to 2SLGBTQ inclusion; I want to see clear expectations communicated to staff and educators that homophobia and transphobia is not tolerable in their spaces," Johnstone said.

For its part, HWDSB's Safe Schools Action Plan includes a goal of having 80 per cent of students from equity-seeking groups self-reporting feeling safe and supported at school.

Despite the concerns, Johnstone remained positive.

"I hope these students know there are a lot of older folks out there who will come to bat for them … our communities and our young folks are powerful and resilient, and there's going to be a better tomorrow. The world is becoming a better place, albeit slowly."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.

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