Nfld. & Labrador

Protest over transgender student denied washroom access a 'learning opportunity': school district

More than 75 students at Menihek High School walked out of class Friday in support of a student who was told by a school administrator that they could use only a gender-neutral washroom.

Incident involving gender-neutral bathrooms was a misunderstanding, says district CEO Tony Stack

More than 75 students at Menihek High School in Labrador City walked out of class Friday, May 13, 2022, after a transgender student wasn't allowed to use the school's female bathroom. (Darryl Dinn/CBC)

The CEO of the Newfoundland and Labrador English School district says a transgender student at Labrador City's high school shouldn't have been denied access to the washroom of their choosing but he sees the incident as a "learning opportunity."

Tony Stack said Thursday the incident was the result of "a misunderstanding and a misinterpretation of the use of gender-neutral washrooms in schools.".

"I personally, and on behalf of the district, feel terrible for the young person that was impacted here, who never should really have been at the centre of this level of attention."

More than 75 students at Menihek High School walked out of class last week in support of the student, who was told by a school administrator that they could use only a gender-neutral washroom, not the school's female washroom.

The school district later corrected that decision, saying students should use the washroom that corresponds to their gender identity.

Stack said it was unfortunate the situation escalated into a protest but said the support from students for their transgender classmate was a positive.

Earlier this week, Menihek High School principal Steven Murphy clarified the policy for students in a video sent to CBC News by one of the school's students.

Stack said the incident serves as a necessary policy reminder for schools across the province, as well as an opportunity to be more inclusive in future planning.

Newfoundland and Labrador English School District CEO Tony Stack says the incident at Menihek High School serves as a reminder of the policy on washrooms and gender identity. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

He said the district has suggested to the provincial government that all washrooms in future schools be gender-neutral.

"Where we can, we will retrofit as many single washroom locations as gender-neutral, and any student, no matter what their gender expression, can avail of those facilities if they prefer," he said.

"Gender-neutral washrooms are exactly that. Washrooms available to anyone and everyone, regardless of their gender expression.… It's a very unfortunate incident, but in education in particular everything is a learning opportunity."

Education Minister Tom Osborne on Wednesday said in the House of Assembly that it's important for students to feel welcome and safe in schools regardless of their gender identity.

"We will certainly continue … to ensure that our students feel safe and welcome," Osborne said.

Meanwhile, in a letter sent to parents by Murphy and assistant principal Vanessa Chafe, the school said the incident was triggered by the school's efforts to respond to a student complaint and the school's need "to clarify the intent of gender-neutral washrooms in schools before acting on that complaint."

"Unfortunately, as we sought clarification on policy, subsequent vandalism of school property and inappropriate comments posted on social media had to be addressed," says the letter, which also says misinformation about the incident is circulating but didn't provide any examples.

"Suffice it to say, not all the information shared by those involved is accurate. But that is in the past, and we are committed to moving forward," said the letter, which notes the school has designated two more washrooms as gender-neutral.

"On a positive note, we were pleased to see our students supporting their transgender schoolmates. That is commendable. It also provided an opportunity for the administration team to confirm that all transgender or transitioning individuals are entitled to safe access to washrooms consistent with their gender expression."

Stack wouldn't comment on any vandalism but said the district is investigating.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Heidi Atter and Labrador Morning

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