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Nova Scotia's transgender students face new school year

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TRURO, N.S. - A crowd of bullies pushed Tyler Jesso to the ground as they yelled homophobic slurs and taunts.

Born a girl, Jesso always felt more like a boy during his childhood in Yarmouth and was often harassed or called names at school, while at home his own father and brother had trouble accepting his gender.

“I didn’t feel right in my own body, so when I started growing up and really felt what transgender was, I realized,” said Jesso, now entering Grade 7.

But Jesso remains hopeful as he begins his new semester at Maple Grove Education Centre in Yarmouth, supported by both his principal and mother, Amy Thibeau.

Jesso also has friends who previously stood up for him against the bullies and are also attending his new school.

“I feel like it’s going to be a big change and I’m a little nervous but excited,” said Jesso.

However, school boards across Nova Scotia have been stepping up to help students like Jesso.

The Chignecto-Central Regional School Board is supporting transgender students by using their preferred name and pronoun, providing easy access to gender-neutral washrooms and private change rooms.

All CCRSB transgender students are promised full access to physical education classes, competitive sports and extracurricular activities in a safe and respectful environment.

“Our support for transgender students is also reflected in the construction of our new schools. A good example of this is the new Bible Hill Consolidated Elementary School, which has gender-neutral bathrooms,” said CCRSB spokesman Darcy MacRae.

Former student Isaac Cook, a Cobequid Educational Centre graduate now attending university in Halifax, praised the efforts of CCRSB and other boards to support transgender students like himself.

“Things were pretty good in comparison to what they could have been,” said Cook, who transitioned from female to male.

But a few issues remain: teacher databases with the wrong names and gender pronouns and the provision of gender-neutral bathrooms.

Nonetheless, attending CEC gave Cook the courage to advocate for himself, insisting that people use his preferred name and gender.

“That was the first time I actually started forcing people to use my name,” said Cook.

The Tri-County Regional School Board, which includes MGEC, has a growing number of gay-straight alliances in its schools that also include transgender students.

“One of our schools, Drumlin Heights, offers an annual event that creates a space for staff and students to hear directly about the experiences of transgender and gender non-conforming student experiences,” said Paul Ash, TCRSB’s superintendent of schools.

Transgender students also stand to benefit from increased mental health supports funded by the province.

The provincial SchoolsPlus program is being expanded to include eight new mental health clinicians this year.

Launched in 2008, the program is now available in 280 Nova Scotia schools. It offers mental health services and other health programs together with mentoring, social work, homework support and justice services in schools.

“Our students need support to succeed and thrive,” said Education and Early Childhood Education Minister Zach Churchill in a release Tuesday. “We are adding more of those supports this year until this program is available in every school.”

The province says that SchoolsPlus will be available in all schools by 2019-20.

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